Confronting the Liberal Arts Conundrum

The need for more Americans to gain a college degree in order to obtain better jobs has become an important national mantra. But I worry that ill-conceived responses to the problem may be leading us down a short-term path that weakens U.S. global competitiveness.

Since the beginning of this country, higher education was built on the foundation of liberal education -- a broad curriculum spanning art, history, literature, mathematics, philosophy, sciences and social sciences, that is intended to prepare an individual to think for him or herself, engage in civic life, and continue to learn through a lifetime. But this vital liberal arts tradition is under attack, directly by elected officials and indirectly by a focus on creating hyper-vocational, reductionist educational programs that aim to prepare students for one particular career immediately post-graduation.

That focus might lead to some quick post-graduation jobs, but it won't help us develop the nimble workforce required for the coming century. We need people who have both specialized knowledge and underlying competencies such as communication and critical thinking skills, analytical ability, creative problem solving, teamwork and global cultural awareness, all of which allows a person to continue learning and adapt over time. That is a crucial ability in a world where most good jobs will constantly change as technologies continue to evolve. A smart English or history major very likely will have these competencies nailed.

It's no secret that the United States has fallen behind in postsecondary education attainment. We are now ranked 14th globally, a dramatic fall from America's former consistent rank of first or second. We know that historically, lifetime earnings are higher for people who completed bachelor's degrees than those who did not. During our most recent economic downturn, we observed higher unemployment rates and longer intervals of unemployment for individuals without a degree than for those who had one.

But we must be careful we don't let the interaction of higher education challenges such as cost and student debt and potential solutions like speeding time to degree and the use of educational technology define the current higher education agenda to the exclusion of our liberal arts tradition.

When a student is asked to analyze a piece of literature or a work of art, he or she must think deeply and make connections among features and formal elements, possibly comparing the work to other examples or connecting the work to a broader historical or cultural context. They then construct a concise argument to support their analysis. This exercise teaches critical thinking, problem solving and communication. I cannot think of a better way to do that.

In the mid-1800s, with the creation of land grant universities, U.S. higher education expanded its capacity in the applied sciences (engineering or agriculture, for example) to provide citizens with more specialized and technical education to support economic development--an important innovation that worked beautifully. By requiring a four-year curriculum with broad foundational general education requirements, the liberal arts tradition lived on in these programs and produced professionals with both specialized vocational knowledge combined with broad contextual understanding, what we refer to as the "T-shaped" individual today. (The horizontal top part of the "T" represents broad knowledge and skills, while the vertical component represents specialization.)

There are many reasons why we should be worried about any move to eschew a broad-based liberal education system, including:

  • The half-life of knowledge is highly compressed in most disciplines--what we learn today may be irrelevant in a relatively short amount of time
  • Most Americans will have numerous careers in a lifetime, requiring them to adapt, change and learn continuously over time
  • A recent survey of 320 business leaders found that the majority of CEOs who responded would recommend a more liberal education
  • And here's perhaps the most compelling argument: China is actively exploring how it can shift from its highly specialized and technical "fill and drill" form of higher education to a more American style that incorporates broad knowledge, leading to critical thinking, creative problem solving and collaboration.

So why the conundrum? People tend to make educational and career decisions based on fairly rational economic choices. A report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce showed that young humanities and arts majors suffered higher levels of unemployment in the recent recession, when compared to other majors. Enrollments in humanities majors are in decline. With all the talk about shortening time to degree, will the liberal arts general education component of any degree fall by the wayside? Will our economy suffer in the long run if an increasing proportion of college students lack significant exposure to the liberal arts?

But even though CEOs and business leaders expound the high value of skills and competencies associated with liberal arts education, why haven't they been hiring more humanities majors? There is a disconnect between what these leaders are saying and how recruiting is handled at the operational level in their firms.

In all the recent conversations about affordability, value, completion and employment, we should not lose sight of the very thing that makes American higher education an engine of economic development and the envy of the world. How do we scale up with quality while balancing the need for broad education and specialized knowledge leading to employment? The answer is we must do both.