Liberal Education Can Save Itself

In eleven years as a college president, I have had countless conversations with faculty, staff, students, parents, journalists, and my peers from other schools about the future of liberal education. The views they expressed range from “Liberal education is on its deathbed” to “It’s the greatest form of education ever,” but colleges are terrible at selling it to prospective students and their families.

In these conversations, I try to remind people that liberal education has stood the test of time. The idea of educating the whole person broadly and deeply to prepare students to meet life’s challenges, to be effective citizens, and to thrive in their chosen field has not only endured, but it has also transformed and will continue to transform the lives of millions of students and their families.

I know because liberal education transformed my life. I earned my undergraduate degree at Georgetown University. I got a broad, deep education and took advantage of all sorts of extracurricular and cocurricular offerings. My classes were mostly small. The intellectual atmosphere was intense. I absolutely loved the seminars during which wise Jesuits would lead us in hours of discussion and debate about philosophy, history, politics, and international relations. Those experiences formed the foundation of my subsequent success in graduate school, law school, and higher education.

So, I don’t believe liberal education is dead or dying. It is evolving and adapting to the world in which we live. All liberal arts institutions are facing manifold challenges exacerbated by the uncertain times in which we live. Some colleges and universities are better positioned—financially, geographically, and demographically—to address the challenges, but no school can ignore what is happening in the wider world.

I cannot offer a simple, replicable formula for success, because each institution is different and liberal arts colleges are by nature complex, decentralized organizations. What works at one may not be appropriate or applicable at another. But by leveraging the thinking skills, interdisciplinary mind-set, innovations, and broad and deep knowledge of a liberal education, colleges and universities can find multifaceted solutions to our challenges.

The challenges are daunting. There are deep social, political, and economic divisions in our country and in other countries. Technology is rapidly changing the way we live, work, communicate, and behave. As the pool of prospective college students shrinks (as described by Nathan Grawe in this issue), the competition for students is increasingly fierce.

Meanwhile, the price of a liberal arts education keeps rising, often exceeding the median family income in the United States, which was $61,372 in 2017.1 Many families won’t even consider sending their child to a college for which tuition is $40,000 a year, especially when an honors college at their state university offers a similar experience at a far lower price. Business models that rely on student charges to cover expenditures aren’t working.

Despite generations of evidence that a liberal education is one of the most powerful engines of progress, for individuals and for our society, there is growing dismissal and even distrust of what we do. Recent survey data from the American Council on Education show that the public’s perception of the value and quality of a college degree has declined markedly over the past two years. Only 48 percent of respondents viewed liberal education favorably, compared to 88 percent and 71 percent favorability ratings for STEM and business education, respectively.2 Respondents’ main measure of success in higher education came down to one word: jobs.

Some of the public’s perceptions fly in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary, including several employer research studies from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U),3 but we have to pay close attention to what the public thinks. Trying to alter public perception of liberal education as a concept is a tall order. To me, the only reasonable way to improve the public’s understanding is on a college-by-college basis, each school speaking to its campus community and its local, regional, and national stakeholders.

Higher education leaders believe liberal education is the best preparation a young person can have for the job market and for a rewarding and meaningful life. We know our graduates do well in their lives and careers. We celebrate their success within our own communities, and we try to get the news media interested. Liberal arts grads do just fine in the job market, but positive academic news can be a tough sell.

We must speak more clearly about what we do. That begins on many of our campuses with learning to speak to one another again. Victories we thought we had won generations ago—a consensus about mutual respect, about the value of multiple viewpoints in the search for truth, about the primacy of truth itself—are fraying in a way that could undermine liberal arts colleges and endanger our nation. To counter that, Oberlin College created a “sustained dialogue” project on campus. Sustained dialogue involves small groups of eight to ten students and a facilitator meeting regularly over a meal to discuss difficult topics such as American politics or hot-button social issues. These conversations are grounded in listening to understand the other person’s viewpoint rather than listening to respond.

More broadly, schools must reiterate that “liberal” in our context is not about politics or party affiliation. And “arts” doesn’t mean a student will have to take a painting class. AAC&U’s definition of liberal education as an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change should be on all of our websites. We should emphasize that we provide students with broad knowledge of the wider world—science, culture, and society—as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication skills, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.

Note that the definition makes repeated reference to skills. That’s important because, on many campuses, “skills” is still treated as a dirty word. Yet, I can’t recall ever receiving a communication from a parent complaining that we are teaching their child useful skills. In fact, we’ve always done just that. The challenge now is that parents want to see a more immediate demonstration of those skills after graduation in the form of a job.

Oberlin now offers entry-level, practice-oriented public speaking classes, something that the college hadn’t offered for decades. We are also developing and implementing residential commons that are designed to provide students with skills in living and learning together successfully.

This is not to say that liberal arts colleges should move toward a narrower college curriculum targeted on clearly defined opportunities for a specific job right after college. While some schools may choose that option because it offers their only hope of survival, most colleges, including mine, are working to create clearer pathways to a career for our students.

For example, Oberlin’s Career Center is launching four “career communities” designed to help students explore and more effectively identify opportunities in a wide range of professional fields. The “Nonprofits, Education, and Social Impact” and the “Business, Finance, and Consulting” career communities have begun offering programming, online resources, and connections to alumni. We’ll be adding two more communities: “Arts and Creative Careers” and “Health Professions.”

But transforming higher education into training for specific, entry-level jobs is risky. In essence, it’s a bet on future demand in the job market. We all know how fast technological change and the global economy move. It is possible that the job a student is aiming for as a first-year student may not exist when he or she graduates. There’s also basic supply and demand. If every student majors in software engineering, the supply of graduates will eventually outstrip the industry’s demand for engineers, putting downward pressure on wages.

Liberal education should prepare you to succeed in multiple careers. Studies show that our graduates are likely to change jobs fifteen times in their lives, with eleven job changes before age forty.4 If all you learned in college was how to do one thing, navigating those changes is going to be tough.

While communicating what our institutions do is essential, so is self-examination. On a practical and immediate level, liberal arts colleges must secure the resources that make our scholarship, teaching, research, creativity, artistry, and engagement possible. And we must find a sustainable way of using those resources that supports our mission.

To do that, leaders need to ask themselves some tough questions. Is an initiative consistent with its mission and values, and does it give students the thinking, knowledge, and skills they will need to succeed in life? Is the initiative financially sustainable?

Collaboration and innovation are also crucial to the health of liberal education. Many schools are already collaborating with public- and private-sector institutions locally and nationally. In states or regions with a high density of liberal arts colleges, some are exploring ways to share faculty and courses.

Other questions include: What is your institution’s specialty? Can you find multiple ways to deliver it? Building on that may be easier than creating a new program from scratch.

College leaders and faculty should also remember that the interdisciplinary nature of liberal education is a powerful tool that is more relevant today than ever before. For example, behavioral economics, now a major driving force in the economy, grew from the interaction of social science and economics.

To build on Oberlin’s interdisciplinary tradition, we launched a curricular program called StudiOC in fall 2017. It links two or three courses around an interdisciplinary theme or large social issue and enrolls a common cohort of students. For example, one of our StudiOC learning communities, “Plagues, Pandemics, and Society,” is examining how infectious diseases shape societies and how societies shape the understanding of infectious diseases. Students are studying these questions from the vantage points of a biology course and a rhetoric and composition class. In addition to sharing classroom experiences, the students are engaging in outside programming that includes guest speakers, field trips, debates, and collaborations with community partners.

The benefits for students are both intellectual and social. They learn to think across disciplines and make connections between seemingly disparate fields and approaches. And the cohort model helps them form supportive peer communities built around the excitement of exploring big questions that resonate both within and outside the classroom. StudiOC also enriches the faculty by encouraging and supporting scholarly, artistic, and pedagogical experimentation.

The same sort of interdisciplinary synergy is playing an important role in artificial intelligence (what Joseph E. Aoun and Stephen M. Kosslyn call “humanics” in this issue). Microsoft president Brad Smith and vice president Harry Shum wrote in the foreword of The Future Computed that “one of the most important conclusions” of Microsoft’s recent research into artificial intelligence (AI) is that lessons from the liberal arts will be critical to unleashing its full potential:

At one level, AI will require that even more people specialize in digital skills and data science. But skilling-up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering, and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology, and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.5

That statement is all the more remarkable considering that in 2011, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates told a panel of American governors that a liberal arts education would hold back college graduates in the modern economy.6

For those of us working in liberal education, the interaction of science, art, music, and the humanities isn’t some great revelation. We see interactions between disciplines every day on our campuses. We know that possessing broad, deep knowledge and skills, and the ability to think flexibly and creatively, is more important than ever before.

Successful careers and financial gain are part of the value of a liberal education. But its worth is also measured in meaningful lives well-lived and producing leaders in virtually every field of human endeavor. Even as liberal education evolves, it remains one of our country’s great assets.

Leaders need to communicate more effectively even as we adapt to the needs and demands of this uncertain world. Andrew Bongiorno, the great Dante scholar and professor of English at Oberlin, who passed away in 1998 at age ninety-eight, once said that the real value of a liberal education cannot be judged on graduation day, because it unfolds and blossoms over an entire lifetime. I couldn’t agree more.

NOTES

1. Gloria G. Guzman, “Household Income: 2017,” report number ACSBR/17-01, US Census Bureau, September 13, 2018, https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2018/acs/acsbr17-01.html.

2. Terry Hartle, “The Public’s View of Higher Education” (presentation, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, September 27, 2018).

3. Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Employer Survey & Economic Trend Research,” https://www.aacu.org/leap/public-opinion-research.

4. Guy Berger, “Will This Year’s College Grads Job-Hop More Than Previous Grads?,” Linkedin Official Blog, April 12, 2016, https://blog.linkedin.com/2016/04/12/will-this-year_s-college-grads-job-... Jeanne Meister, “The Future of Work: Job Hopping Is the ‘New Normal’ for Millennials,” Forbes, August 14, 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannemeister/2012/08/14/the-future-of-work....

5. Brad Smith and Harry Shum, foreword to The Future Computed: Artificial Intelligence and Its Role in Society, by Microsoft (Redmond, WA: Microsoft), 18.

6. Vivek Wadhwa, “Engineering vs. Liberal Arts: Who’s Right—Bill or Steve? ,” TechCrunch, March 21, 2011, https://techcrunch.com/2011/03/21/engineering-vs-liberal-arts-who%E2%80%...

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org with the author’s name on the subject line.


CARMEN TWILLIE AMBAR is president of Oberlin College.

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