AAC&U News: January/February 2015

Why a Tech-Driven Economy Needs the Liberal Arts

By Tuajuanda C. Jordan, U.S. News and World Report, January 12, 2015

When many people hear the phrase “liberal arts,” they think only of the humanities disciplines—literature, philosophy, art history, and the like—but not the science disciplines the term traditionally encompassed.  “A rigid barrier in the popular mind separates disciplines like chemistry and physics” from the arts and humanities, says Tuajuanda Jordan, president of Saint Mary’s College of Maryland, but that barrier represents a false division.  “What [I] and many others have come to understand is that a full education in the humanities is not just important for a career in creative writing, it’s also critical to a career in one of the oft-discussed STEM fields [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics].”

The recent financial crisis in the United States has renewed emphasis on how well colleges prepare their students for employment, and a well-rounded liberal arts education is considered a luxury by the politicians and pundits who posit STEM-centric education as the key to economic vitality. But this line of thinking ignores the outsize role that liberal arts colleges, and the full range of liberal arts studies, have in preparing future scientists. In a two-year study, chemistry Nobel laureate Thomas Cech found that nearly 20 percent of the scientists elected to the National Academy of Sciences during that period received their undergraduate education at liberal arts colleges. Cech attributes this phenomenon in part to the cross-training between sciences and the humanities fostered by these institutions.

It’s also important to remember that education and job training are not the same thing, Jordan says—and “conflating them can be dangerous for our economy and for our students,” because we don’t know what the jobs of the future will look like, given the ever increasing pace of technological change and globalization. That’s why a broad education grounded in the liberal arts and sciences is so valuable, she says. “No matter the economic landscape, you’ll need a broad knowledge base and the ability to think across disciplines and make informed decisions.”

Read the full essay at U.S. News and World Report.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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