Promoting Meaningful Education: Phi Beta Kappa Honors the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts

At a time when so many seem to be questioning the value of a college education in general and a focus on the liberal arts in particular, it's ironic that all available data indicate that worries of this sort are absolutely unfounded. Indeed, study after study has shown that the liberal arts are a wonderful investment, both for the individual and for society.

Even if many individuals seem not to recognize this point, employers all across the country certainly do. A study commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) entitled "It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success" looks at the characteristics employers find most valuable in new employees. Although employers never refer directly to the liberal arts, what they describe as being most important comprises the heart of soul of a liberal arts education. Consider the following statistics:

• 93% of employers say that candidates' demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major;
• 91% of employers say that, whatever their major, all students should have experiences in solving problems with colleagues whose views are different from their own; and
• 95% of employers agree that their companies put a priority on hiring people with the intellectual and interpersonal skills to help them contribute to innovation in the workplace.

When these same employers were asked what characteristics should colleges and universities focus on to ensure that graduates were ready for employment, the vast majority of them wanted even more attention paid to issues at the core of a liberal education. For example:

• 82 % wanted more attention paid to critical thinking/analytical reasoning;
• 81% wanted more attention paid to ability to analyze/solve complex problems;
• 80% wanted more attention devoted to improving oral and written communication skills;
• 67% were interested in more teamwork/collaboration in diverse group settings; and
• 64% wanted students to be more knowledgeable about how to make ethical decisions.

The data also indicate that what employers want translates into jobs for graduates. Even at the depth of our recent recession/depression, opportunities actually expanded for college graduates according to a report released by Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. Yet another report demonstrated the surprising result that mid-career pay levels for individuals with technical degrees were roughly equivalent to those who had earned degrees in the humanities and arts.

There's also very good reason to believe that integrating the arts and sciences leads to creative breakthroughs that would not be possible when either was excluded. Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest academic honor society, reporting on a study published in the Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology notes that "90 percent of Nobel Laureates in the sciences say the arts should be part of every technologists' education. In fact, 80 percent of them can point to specific ways arts training boosted their innovative ability."

The problem with the liberal arts, therefore, isn't with the academic content of what's being taught in colleges and universities. Rather the problem is that the liberal arts are woefully misunderstood by most segments of society. To a large extent the fault for this situation lies with academics rather than with the general public. As Carol Geary Schneider, president of AAC&U, so provocatively said a while back, the academy has fostered a "conspiracy of voluntary silence" when it comes to the liberal arts. We've been fearful of promoting the liberal arts and liberal education because they sound soft and they're easily misunderstood.

In the state of Washington where I work as the Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Evergreen State College, a group of academics and our allies came together two and a half years ago to break the conspiracy of silence about the liberal arts. Leaders from thirty three institutions of higher education representing two- and four-year, public and private colleges and universities formed the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts. Our mission is as simple as it is important; we were formed to "promote the value of a liberal arts education to the people and communities of the state."

I am thrilled to be able to say that our efforts are paying off. Phi Beta Kappa, itself an organization that recognizes and supports these same values, will grant its Key of Excellence Award to the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts on Wednesday, 10 December in a ceremony at McCaw Hall in Seattle.

Phi Beta Kappa took particular notice of our work with employers throughout the state, our outreach to college and high school students, and our efforts with the media to more holistically present the value and power of the liberal arts.

With the recognition associated with receiving an award from such a high profile organization, our efforts have been raised to a new level. Most importantly, this should help us educate prospective students, their parents, legislators and the general public about the significance of ensuring that the liberal arts are broadly supported.