Liberal Education, Spring 2005
Liberal Education for the Twenty-first Century:
By Roberts T. J ones
Throughout most of the last century,
the American system of higher education was revered both here
and throughout the world. But the impact of expanding global
competition, changes in American labor markets, the exploding
growth of knowledge, innovations in technology, and the resulting
increased demands for higher skills are creating significant
new challenges for higher education. Further, the dramatic
impacts of these forces on our economy, on our education system,
and indeed, on our quality of life are projected to significantly
accelerate in the near future. These changes will require
ever more intimate connections between higher education and
the larger society.
Higher education, business, and public
policy makers will need to turn their attention to efforts
of aligning higher education curricula and outcomes with the
escalating demands of the surrounding environment. This should
not be taken as a signal that broad support for liberal education
has waned. To the contrary, the value and benefits of a liberal
education will be more respected and in greater demand as
the world becomes increasingly complex. But we will all need
to work hard to support this case.
The primary question posed by this paradox
is not whether the traditional framework of liberal education
is effective, but whether it is calibrated to the demands
of the changing world. Institutions will be increasingly pressured
to ensure that, in addition to the traditional components
of broad cultural, political, social, and scientific learning,
liberal education also contains the specific skill sets that
enable students to navigate the growing demands of the occupational
Neither the degree nor the institution
nor even the reputation of the American system of higher education
itself is any longer sufficient to ensure the successful transition
of students into the workplaces of the twenty-first century.
Upon leaving college and entering the workplace, students
are increasingly facing tests and assessments of their basic
knowledge and skills and their aptitude for continuous learning.
Employers are less concerned with transcripts than the demonstration
of achievement and competency across a variety of general
and specialized skills.
The rest of the world is catching up!
Literacy rates are rising in Asia, Eastern Europe, and South
America. Higher education investments and outcomes are exploding
in India, China, and Chile. While it used to be first in terms
of college attendance, the United States has now fallen to
sixth. Research and development investments by other countries
are increasing well above levels in the United States, and
foreign direct investments in China have surpassed those in
the United States. As a result, the United States' percentage
of the total world output of goods and services has fallen
from 40 percent to 21 percent. The United States used to produce
61 percent of all published research, but, as other countries
exercise new levels of research leadership, it now produces
only 29 percent. Finally, perhaps the most telling signal
that the world is catching up, only 52 percent of the patents
responsible for American industrial leadership are now owned
by U.S. sources—the lowest percentage in our history.
Over the next five years, these numbers
will increase exponentially as highly populated countries
in Asia, South America, and Europe dramatically increase the
percentage of their population in higher education, their
investments in research and development, their productivity,
and the overall growth in their Gross National Product/Gross
Domestic Product. Added to this is the fact that most of these
countries have significantly younger populations than the
United States. Their ability to mobilize large, well-educated
workforces will make them significant economic forces for
years to come.
Impact on American business and
Meanwhile, the United States is experiencing
minimal population growth (1.1 percent) and even slower growth
in its workforce (0.9 percent). The joint impact of low birth
rates and an aging population is only minimally offset by
immigration. Juxtaposed against this is a job growth rate
in excess of 1.4 percent per year. The net result is projected
skilled job shortages of seven million by 2010 and twenty-one
million by 2020. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is currently
reporting shortages in health care, engineering, teaching,
technology, and a variety of technical occupations.
The combined pressures of increasing
foreign competition, technological innovation, and the constrained
labor market have required American business to engage in
an endless cycle of productivity improvement. The continuous
evolution of the workplace has had (and will continue to have)
a direct impact on job content, application, and skill requirements.
As productivity improvements influence occupational application,
every occupation now requires that employees demonstrate greater
responsibility, higher skills, broader application abilities,
and continuous learning.
Institutions of higher education must
respond to these trends by keeping the curriculum aligned
with the constantly changing content and application of technical
specialties in the workplace. At the same time, the number
of enrollments in postsecondary education continues to grow,
and both native-born and immigrant populations that are ill
prepared to meet these escalating academic demands account
for an increasing percentage of that growth. Consequently,
more than 53 percent of current college students must take
remedial classes in either mathematics or English.
Business, against this backdrop, reports
finding weaknesses amongst recent graduate hires in the following
basic academic areas: writing, math, science, information
technology, and working knowledge of global integration. In
addition to a lack of basic academic preparation, business
reports a lack of knowledge of application and analysis. Finally,
students often come to the workplace ill prepared in the areas
of teamwork, diversity, ethics, and lifelong learning. As
a result, employers spent more than $40 million for remedial
programming last year.
This entire cycle is not a "periodic"
phenomenon. The impacts of globalization, demographics, and
productivity will continue to escalate. Much like business,
colleges and universities are now, more than ever, required
to establish permanent systems of continuous improvement.
It is in this very challenging environment
that employers continue to believe in and support the traditional
value of a liberal education. As Roger Smith (1987), the former
chief executive officer of General Motors, points out, "Liberal
Arts may ultimately prove to be the most relevant learning
model. People trained in the Liberal Arts learn to tolerate
ambiguity and to bring order out of apparent confusion. They
have the kind of sideways thinking and cross-classifying habit
of mind that comes from learning, among other things, the
many different ways of looking at literary works, social systems,
chemical processes, or languages."
In the future, the inherent constructs of liberal education
will be more applicable and in higher demand than they are
today. Employers do not want, and have not advocated for,
students prepared for narrow workforce specialties. Rather,
the application of specialized knowledge will be more and
more integrated within a broader range of sociopolitical environments
that place a premium on judgment, communication, collaboration,
and analytical skills. Virtually all occupational endeavors
require a working appreciation of the historical, cultural,
ethical, and global environments that surround the application
of skilled work. As knowledge, technology, and global impacts
escalate at dizzying rates, so too will the value and significance
of the liberal education framework increase.
Challenges for liberal education
The primary question then is not whether
a liberal education but, rather, what constitutes a liberal
education in the twenty-first century. First, colleges and
universities must continue to respond to the highest principles
of an intellectually challenging education that exposes students
to the broadest view of the wider world. As that world continues
to evolve, institutions, departments, and professors will
face the daunting challenge of adapting new curricula to the
traditional college time and experience model.
The second new challenge is to ensure
that graduates have specific, demonstrated competencies in
the academic, applied, and soft skill areas that are essential
to successfully applying the benefits of liberal learning.
Students must be prepared to enter either graduate school
or the workplace with the ability to apply the skills developed
through their broader learning experience. Thus, institutions
are challenged to ensure that the curriculum is designed to
foster student competency in the following areas: basic academics
(writing, math, science, technology, and global integration);
application skills (integrated and applied learning, critical
thinking); and soft skills (teamwork, ethics, diversity, and
lifelong learning preparation).
The definitions of liberal learning and
of a liberal education for the twenty-first century include
not only exposure to the breadth of civilized society in an
increasingly complex world, but also the absolute assurance
that students possess the requisite general education competencies
to apply that learning in the constantly evolving world of
Educators, students, and employers will
need to reinvigorate their age-old compact. Students need
to know that attending a particular institution will, in fact,
prepare them with the basic and specialized knowledge required
for both their acceptance and their survival in an ever-changing
workplace. Employers need to have greater clarity about and
faith in the meaning of the degree from a particular institution.
Educators need assurance that their curriculum and student
learning standards are aligned with the expectations of the
global marketplace. This compact is as old and as revered
as higher education itself. What are changing are the substantive
components that ensure relevance in a world with constantly
Presumptions that course content, application,
professorial pronouncements, or degree attainment reflect
student competency are no longer adequate for the student,
employer, or the academic institution. For liberal education
to be effective and valued, institutions must clearly establish
and give public visibility to the "quality achievements"
required of every graduate of that institution. Establishing
a clear system of standards, assessments, and remediation
is the means through which employers and educators can communicate.
Employers find it far more effective to reflect on specific
institutional standards than to try to communicate specific
and broad skill expectations from scratch. For students, the
degree would then communicate clear competencies to potential
employers and increase their own confidence in their abilities.
Having established the structures of
the system, institutions must establish and utilize a formal
system of ongoing dialogues with employers and graduates in
order to continuously modify the standards. Following are
the most obvious and essential components:
- Clear visible standards. Students,
professors, administrators, policy makers, and parents must
have clear understandings of the institution's specific
general education achievement standards in the areas of
basic academics, applications skills, and soft skills.
- Assessments and remediation.
Institutions must ensure that student achievement is being
continually assessed against the standards and that appropriate
remedial action is taken to address weaknesses in student
performance, curriculum alignment, and professorial
- Continual updates. A formal
feedback system that ensures continual input from both employers
and graduates in supporting the relevance of the standards
and revitalizing them as expectations change.
The definition of both the content and
the expected achievement levels of the standards is the sole
prerogative of the individual institution. Indeed, this becomes
a significant part of the institution's identity and
reputation, and it is a visible reflection of its educational
quality. Active public disclosure of the standards and visible
demonstrations that all graduates of a specific institution
meet them would significantly improve support for the institution
from employers, policy makers, and the public.
On the other hand, this would create
a higher degree of self-imposed accountability. Setting forth
clear outcome standards requires that they are embedded in
the curriculum and that both students and professors are clearly
aware of, and culpable for, the content and the expected outcomes.
Assessments must be aligned and reflective of the expected
levels, and remedial programs must be readily available and
effective. In the end, the institution itself becomes more
publicly accountable to employers, students, and policy makers
for the self-imposed assurances of relevant student achievement.
David Kearns (2000), the highly successful
former chief executive officer of Xerox, believes that the
tradition of liberal education is one of America's greatest
advantages in the global marketplace. "We are reminded
that the real challenge of today's economy is not in
making things but in producing creative ideas. Today, the
race goes not just to the swift, but to the inventive, the
resourceful, the curious. And that is what is what a liberal
education is all about."
Liberal education, with its mix of the
full, rich breadth of intellectual inquiry, now enhanced with
practical learning, is the essential foundation for success
in every growing occupation. The challenge is to sustain that
tradition while also ensuring that it both reflects the changing
expectations of a global economy and provides the essential
skills necessary for applying the benefits of that education.
The advent of globalization has brought
enormous changes to American business, government policies,
and the lives of individuals. As a result, more Americans
than ever are finding their way into postsecondary education
in hopes of making the connection to the high-demand marketplace.
To meet these growing expectations, higher education will
have to form new partnerships, create new communication vehicles,
and commit to a public system of continuous improvement.
Yes, the world is catching up. The men,
women, and families in other countries have the same desires
for quality of life and high standards of living as do Americans.
The growing impact of global expansion will not be stemmed
by legislative or regulatory protections. The test of America's
commitment will be the degree to which we are willing to invest
our policy and financial resources in an education system
that ensures our citizens receive the practical and intellectual
tools with which to successfully compete.
Kearns, D. T. 2000. Foreword to Reclaiming the
legacy: In defense of liberal education, by D. P. Doyle.
Washington, DC: The Council for Basic Education.
Smith, R. B. 1987. The liberal arts and the art of management.
In Educating managers: Executive effectiveness through
liberal learning, ed. Johnston
et al., 21-33. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Roberts T. Jones is president of Education
and Workforce Policy, LLC, a policy consulting firm focused
on the advancement of education and training policy in the
corporate, education, and government sectors. Previously,
he was president and chief executive officer of the National
Alliance of Business and, prior to that, served as assistant
secretary of labor under Presidents Reagan and Bush.
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