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Liberal Education: Employers' Views and Yours

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Carol Geary Schneider
Graduation Address, The College of Wooster -- Class of 2006

Thank you so much.  I am delighted to be here, and I want to thank you for the pleasure of joining you for this wonderful celebration. I am a great admirer of the College of Wooster—as I will explain in a few minutes—and it is a great honor to be with you today.

And to the students:  Congratulations! All of those here today—your families, the faculty, the staff, the special guests—are beaming with pride that you have arrived at this moment and about all that you have done to earn this diploma.

This is a turning point in your lives, of course, and I want to talk with you today about the connections between the education you have received at this college and the work you will shortly begin—either with that first job, or once you have finished your graduate studies.

But before I turn to that topic, I also want you to know that I am speaking to you today as a very proud parent in my own right. My own son will be graduating from college this month. And because I'm in the midst of it myself, I have an especially vivid sense of the drama of this moment for parents.

I know many of you are thinking not just how did these four years go so fast, but even more nostalgically: how did those twenty-some years race by with such speed? This is a very poignant moment for those of us who are parents—a moment when pride mixes with a keen sense of time passing. I suspect we all have a secret wish that we could roll back the clock for just a few more years.

That would be, of course, President Hales, a tuition-free roll back of the clock…. 

I do want to make that plain.

And still speaking as a parent: I am intensely aware that the graduates are being asked, more times than you want to count: "So, what's next?"

And that's what I want to talk about, too.  What's next?

Some of you, of course, already have a socially acceptable answer to that question. You've accepted a job or you're heading to graduate school, or maybe you'll be in one of the public service corps—Teach for America, for example—for the next couple of years.  But some of you,­ like my own son, have put off any serious effort at job-seeking until your college studies were finished. You're coming home—at least for a while—to plot out those next steps.

But whether your plans are set or still wide open, the hard truth is that none of us can really know "what's next." You have started at this college on the work of your lives, and your education has dramatically expanded the possibilities that are open to you.

But you—like everyone else in your generation—will have to design your own maps, put down your own markers, round up your own mentors and fellow travelers, and, ultimately, write your own definition for what counts as success.

The Changing Context

Americans are long past the time, of course, when a young college graduate would move almost automatically into a pattern of fixed social roles, inherited responsibilities, or clearly defined professional and family expectations. You don't need to be a historian to know that these kinds of fixed pathways for young adults belong to a world we have long since lost.

But you, the class of 2006, also are plunging into a global era of unprecedented complexity and volatility. You've spent four years studying these new challenges: the technological revolution, the shrinking and connecting of the global community; the emergence of global pandemics, and the profound questions we face about the sustainability of the environment. You are keenly aware of the cultural, religious, and political turbulence in which we now live, and, because this college cares deeply about the quality and character of community, you are especially aware of the continuing struggles, in this country and in many parts of the globe, to create just communities in which everyone is recognized and everyone has a voice.

Perhaps most importantly, you have learned that the dynamics of the global economy are shifting, and that Americans are going to be challenged to compete in the global community as they have never really had to compete before. In the twentieth century, this country rapidly gained and then readily held far-reaching economic power. On that foundation, we built far-reaching military power as well. By the end of the century, our leaders were planning for a long-term future in which the United States would be the world's only superpower.

But now, in this first decade of a new century, we all sense that those power dynamics, economic and political, are changing. My generation is part of the transition from an American century to a global century. But you are the ones who will establish this nation's role—for better or worse—in the new frontiers of global interdependence.

Just one small example of larger trends: now that my son is about graduate from college, he gets several calls a week from hopeful credit card companies. And it is extremely plain that many, many of those calls are coming from other parts of the globe. The outsourcing of middle-class jobs is real and so too is the rise of new economic power centers in other parts of the globe. The economic challenge for your generation will be to find new ways to support American prosperity in a context of dramatically expanded global interaction and competition.

These tidal waves of massive and dislocating economic and cultural change will only accelerate. The world in which you will live, make choices, pursue work, compose lives is one of contingency rather than certainty, of seismic changes, rather than reliable continuities.

But this, of course, is what your education has been about. The whole point of a liberal arts education is to prepare you for the unknown. A liberal education does not—cannot—give you guaranteed answers to the world's big questions. But a liberal education does give you the mental discipline and the moral confidence to develop your own best answers in contexts of uncertainty and change.

But how exactly does a liberal arts education help you in this dramatically changing economy? What are the specific connections between what you have been learning on this campus and the work you will soon be doing—either in the year to come or when you finish graduate school? What, over the long term, is the real-world value of what you have learned at the College of Wooster?

Liberal Education:  What Employers Expect

One way we can answer this is to put the question directly to employers and business leaders across the United States. So, for the next few minutes, I want to tell you, not how I would answer this question, but rather what employers across the country have already said about it.

As you heard when I was introduced, my association has embarked this year on a far-reaching effort to build stronger public understanding and support for liberal or liberal arts education. We call this initiative Liberal Education and America's Promise, or LEAP. LEAP was shaped in dialogue with academic and other national leaders across the United States, including your president, Stan Hales, and the College of Wooster is one of our many campus partners.

In the context of this initiative, we have been talking extensively with business leaders and employers in the private sector about their views of what matter in a contemporary college education. We've held focus groups in different parts of the United States, and, in individual meetings, we've been talking with employers all across the country about the connections between liberal education and the demands of this new economy.

There's bad news and good news from these interviews. The bad news—and many of the parents here already know this—is that employers, in general, are quite critical of the academy. On the whole, they think that higher education isn't sufficiently rigorous and that too many students earn a diploma without really getting a good education. 

But there is good news in these interviews as well. The good news is that the qualities employers are asking for in a well-prepared graduate are precisely the things that a liberal arts college does particularly well. And in particular, employers place high value on the kinds of learning that the College of Wooster provides exceptionally well.

In many ways, in fact, there is a high degree of similarity in the skills employers consider key priorities and the goals that this faculty has set for the Wooster curriculum.

Employers—virtually without exception—want employees who can write well, and I have to say that we heard universal lamentations that effective writing is in such short supply.  You, of course, have been expected to write, constantly and extensively, from the day you began your first-year seminar to your recent completion of your required independent study.

As you would expect, employers also place high value on analytical and problem-solving skills.  That too has been a constant theme in your liberal arts education at the College of Wooster. 

What you might not expect is that our informants also talked a great deal both about the importance of creativity and about the value of multi-disciplinary competence.  Not inter-disciplinarity, but “multi-disciplinarity.”  As one person put it, “what our company can't afford is a person who is imprisoned in a single disciplinary framework." Another executive, this one in a high technology organization with worldwide locations, talked at length about the value of "integrator capabilities," by which he meant the capacity to create connections across disciplinary, organizational, and cross-cultural boundaries.  This kind of cross-disciplinary learning has been a major theme in your education.  It is becoming indispensable in our economy.

But employers are interested in the breadth of your knowledge as well as your skills. The business community has long been a strong proponent of diversity as an essential part of college learning, and that was reinforced in the interviews. But now many business leaders also want to see an expanded emphasis on global knowledge and experience. In addition, as you may already know, the business community is mounting a national campaign to dramatically ramp up the level of national achievement in mathematics and science.

I would be less than honest if I told you that the executives we interviewed had a good understanding of a liberal arts education. Unless they had gone to a liberal arts college themselves, they really didn't. And that, ultimately, is why we have launched the campaign for Liberal Education and America's Promise or LEAP.

But what was absolutely plain across these focus groups and interviews is that employers value highly the disciplined habits of mind—and the broad knowledge—that are fostered by a good liberal arts education. These executives wanted more evidence of liberal education, not less, whether or not they actually use the vocabulary of liberal or liberal arts education.

But above and beyond the call for strong intellectual skills and broad knowledge, there were other themes in these conversations with employers that also have special implications for liberal arts graduates. The first is that employers strongly believe that the key to economic success—in their own industries and in the global economy overall—is the capacity for continuous innovation.

Intel Corporation Chairman Craig Barrett, for example, has been widely quoted for his observation that 90 percent of the products his company delivers on the final day of each year did not exist on the first day of that year.

Think about that description for a minute. And think about the qualities of mind and spirit and determination that are required to pull it off.  That is a description of a corporate culture in which everyone is doing the equivalent of independent study projects, non-stop, all the time.

A second theme that is worth our attention is that these employers are looking for a quite distinctive combination of big picture thinking plus the passion and competence to actually get a job done. One of the focus groups we convened came up with the term "that 360 degree person,"­ the one who will insist on looking at a problem from every angle in order to come up with the best solution. That same group agreed that the worst problems come when an employee is "locked into a single point of view."  Another employer talked about "mental prisons" that stand in the way of new learning and needed change.

Again, the employers are using their own vernacular. But in asking for big picture thinking, they surely are asking for the distinctive strengths of a liberal arts education.

The third theme that has special importance for the College of Wooster is something we heard over and over from executives. People are not hiring you for the knowledge you bring; rather, they are hiring you for the potential you demonstrate. Obviously, employers need to see evidence in your resume that you can actually do the first job. But they know that jobs are changing very rapidly, and so they are equally interested in evidence of your longer term potential.

What they really want to know is whether you are a good learner: whether you have the curiosity and drive to grow with the organization, and whether you have the intellectual agility to tackle new challenges as they emerge and to help turn those problems into opportunities.

So how would employers know whether you have this kind of potential? The typical college transcript is, in fact, singularly unrevealing about the things that matter most for long term success. Transcripts tell us very little, for example, about such issues as curiosity or imagination or drive.

But in this context—in the search for evidence of long-term potential—­graduates at the College of Wooster—every single one of you—have an extraordinary advantage.

If there is one thing that will indicate to others—whether it’s an employer or a graduate school—that you can tackle a complex problem and get a handle on it, it's the kind of work you just completed in your independent study or IS.

I hope the parents and family members here realize how distinctive the IS program at the College of Wooster really is. It is extremely unusual for an entire college to provide the opportunity for every single student to complete a senior project, much less to ensure that every student works directly under the supervision of a fully qualified faculty member. Out of nearly 1100 colleges and universities that belong to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, I can only name a small number which make such an opportunity not just an option for some students, but a shared expectation for all students.

Because the College of Wooster has made IS its signature program, every graduate in this gathering—every single one—already has demonstrated that distinctive potential, that ability to tackle and conquer a complex project-which provides the best possible evidence of what you can do in the future.

The commitment to IS for everyone represents an extraordinary commitment, both on the part of this college and for everyone in the faculty and staff. Moreover, it's not a new commitment. This tradition was started nearly sixty years ago, and there is a long tradition here of faculty consultation about how to get students ready—starting long before the senior year—so that by the time they begin their IS project, students already have the background and the intellectual confidence to successfully complete a very challenging task.

My own son did not attend a college which expects this kind of work from all its seniors. But as he would tell you, if he were here today, when he decided which college he wanted to attend, I agreed to his choice with a single stipulation: that he would do a senior project of some kind, even though it wasn't required.

Now I won't say that he fully understood why I feel so strongly about this.  And in fact, I can’t say that he was especially grateful for my insistence.

But I will say that I know for certain that he got a far superior education because he took on the challenge of designing and completing his own signature independent study. And so did each of you.

What each member of the Class of 2006 now has in your portfolio, so to speak, but even more importantly, in your intellectual DNA, is exactly that evidence of special potential that your future employers will be looking for.

Your independent study—just the fact that you did it­—shows employers that you can rise to a challenge and that you will get a difficult task accomplished.

In fact, it says something very important about you that you intentionally chose one of the few colleges in the country which holds all graduates to such a high standard of performance.

Now I am not naive about this.  I know that some of you suffered through your IS project.  Some of your may agree completely with one of your predecessors who wrote, way back in the 1950s:  “Independent study is an exercise in humility….”  You may even agree that, as one faculty member whispered to me last night:  

“The truth is: IS drives them to drink!”

But whether or not the independent study took its toll on you is not the point.  What really counts in this experience is that you took charge of your own learning. Taking on a project of your own design is the best preparation you could possibly have for the world of work you are about to enter.

The effort you made and the self-knowledge you gained in the course of that effort are invaluable outcomes of your liberal education.

What Matters Most 

And this brings me to the last point I want to make about the connection between your education and the life choices you will ultimately make. The employers we interviewed talked a lot about qualities of mind, about drive and passion, and the absolute determination to get the job done.

But there's another dimension of successful intelligence—well documented in the research literature—and that dimension is self­-knowledge. Your success in your work, whatever that work turns out to be, isn't just a matter of your creativity and skill. A big factor in your long term success is knowing yourself well enough that you can accurately judge where you want to be, and also where you don't want to be.  It's knowing where and when to invest your loyalty and commitment, and it's knowing when you have to walk away, or even you need to take a courageous stand against a course of action you think is wrong.

There are ethical questions every where you turn, as one successful AOL executive told me. And if you are not prepared for them, as he said bluntly, they can destroy you.

Author Matthew Stewart makes a related point in an interesting article on management and the liberal arts in the June 2006 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.  Management choices are always, ultimately, about the use of power, he points out. But power in turn raises questions that, at root, are always moral questions.

And this is the final way that your liberal arts education has prepared you for this volatile and turbo-charged global century. Your education has allowed you space, time, colleagues, and encouragement to develop your own moral code. It has encouraged you to become aware of your own values and to think hard about the content and character of your ethical commitments.  Your education has asked you to make fundamental choices and commitments about who you are, what you stand for, and finally, when it comes to power, what you are willing to stand against. 

I believe absolutely that this process of encouraging students to come to know themselves is the hidden genius of American liberal education. It's not an easy process to explain, much less to market.

But in the world of uncertainty, contingency, and non-stop innovation I've been describing, it matters absolutely that each of you knows what finally matters to you:  your values, your standards, your bedrock commitments.

In a world of economic change we have no choice but to become inventors.  But even as we invent, it is also important to develop a strong sense of internal moral compass. Some forms of creativity are, after all, ultimately destructive, as the corporate scandals of the last few years illustrate all too well.

Or, as someone said in talking about the ultimate meaning of a liberal education: "When life comes knocking at the door of your soul, you want to be certain that there will be someone at home."

And that, I believe, is the most enduring strength of the kind of education you've experienced at this college. Whether we call them "liberal arts" or "21st century skills," you certainly have acquired the preparation you need to succeed in today's economy.

But many of the questions that you will confront along the way—in your careers and in your personal lives—are not just questions of how to get things done. Ultimately, they will be questions about what is most worth doing. And these are the questions that, in the final analysis, each of us must answer for ourselves.

A liberal education does indeed prepare you for success. But it also asks you to think long and hard about what we mean by success. And in a world where the tides of change can all too easily carry you forward, that inner compass—that moral center—is likely to prove the most lasting educational value of all.

Members of the class of 2006: you're a pretty extraordinary group. Congratulations on your graduation and on your liberal arts education.

You couldn't have made a better choice.

Carol Geary Schneider