As a marketing consultant might say, higher education has a problem with its value proposition. With tuitions soaring at many state institutions and at painfully high levels in private ones, the public at large and many government officials want to know the value of education, especially in preparing people for jobs.
Federal authorities and state governments are increasingly using measures like starting salaries by field of study to measure the value of education and of public investments in it. The problem is that starting salaries are an incomplete, anomalous and misleading measure, as a recent report on new graduates salaries in Virginia suggests. Value and values have other meanings, and are commonly used to describe "worth" outside of the measuring sticks used in markets.
This was called to mind a few months ago when I saw an intriguing title on a magazine asking, "What Are You Worth?" I took it to mean something about the purpose of life, but the story was actually about different ways to value your investments. This is a clear example of how the same words convey radically different meanings depending on the circumstances and choices that one has in mind.
The same premise holds true when speaking of the value of a liberal education. Equating educational value with monetary value like starting salaries is taking hold in the public mind, so it is good to sort out the terms. Some years ago, Professor Thomas Green described educational value in this way:
We are born into the world, but we are educated into the possession of our powers for the exercise of intellect, emotion, imagination, judgment, memory, observation and action....
He goes on to say that taking hold of these human powers represents "the defining presence of educational worth."
An education in the arts and sciences plays a powerful part in the shaping of human capabilities and the unfolding of human possibilities. Recent effort to evaluate student learning in higher education has focused attention on what are typically called student "learning outcomes." Attending to learning outcomes allows us to measure the consequences of the engaged study of important ideas, texts, artifacts, problems, and methods that provide the content of knowledge in arts and sciences fields. The key to seeing the enduring power of liberal learning is to trace how knowledge and its processes take up residence in students as they move toward becoming independent thinkers and agents of their own lives. A liberal education provides students with a broad set of capabilities such as critical thinking, effective communication, quantitative reasoning, creative thinking, problem-solving, integrative thinking, and personal and social responsibility. While not monetarily quantifiable at graduation, there is no question of the value of these capabilities for all individuals in the workforce of the future, as citizens and as human beings.
Each of these capabilities serves as an entry point into the more specific ways that the arts and sciences open cognitive and personal doors into the social and natural worlds in which we live. To explore but one example, in learning to communicate effectively, we discover the endless depths and power of language and the ways we can find great pleasure in it; but, we can also learn to use language to touch and influence others, especially as we grasp the narratives that we and others inescapably both live and tell.
All these capabilities have an eminently practical side that translates into skills for success in the marketplace and into dealing effectively with the intricate responsibilities of personal and civic life. The very best views on the value of the liberal arts today are those of the current beneficiaries of this education: undergraduates who are studying the liberal arts and alumni who have experienced how valuable the liberal arts have been to them in their lives and careers. These fresh voices are the ones that need to be heard, and that is the reason behind a TEDx conference at Brown University October 20th. Only when we see and hear people who are now in medicine, finance, film making, technology, and public service, who continue to find lasting significance in their liberal arts education, will we come to understand where true value lies.