Washington State Joins National Effort to Enhance the Liberal Arts

The state of Washington, through the auspices of the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts (WaCLA), has just become the 11th state in the nation to join the Association of American Colleges and University's (AAC&U) signature program. The program is entitled LEAP, Liberal Education and America's Promise, and, as AAC&U explains it, LEAP "is a national advocacy, campus action, and research initiative that champions the importance of a twenty-first century liberal education--for individuals and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality."

WaCLA is a consortium of 37 two- and four-year, public and private institutions of higher education as well as seven non-academic partners. Members have come together to promote the value of a liberal arts education to the people and communities of the state of Washington. Collectively, WaCLA institutions annually educate approximately one-quarter of a million students and thus their efforts are central to how Washingtonians will view education, are prepared to be active and engaged members of their communities, and will enter the workforce for generations to come.

Carol Geary Schneider, president of AAC&U, very nicely summarized the synergistic benefits of Washington becoming a LEAP State:

"AAC&U and WaCLA educators share a passion for liberal education and a commitment to help all students achieve both broad learning about the world they will inherit--through studies in science, humanities, the arts, and the social sciences--and the critical skills they need to help create solutions for our future. Given these shared commitments, we are delighted to work with WaCLA to ensure that college students throughout the consortium receive the best possible preparation for purposeful work and citizenship, and flourishing lives."

WaCLA, working in conjunction with AAC&U and institutional members of the other LEAP States, is attempting to define and share best educational practices while, at the same time, is creating a dialogue with the public to explode myths about the nature of the liberal arts.

Too many people, for example, erroneously believe that a liberal education pits the sciences against the arts and humanities. In fact, a liberal education encompasses the full stretch of human knowledge, enabling students to learn multiples ways of approaching complex problems. Scientists who can communicate well and engineers who understand the aesthetic aspects of design will make greater contributions than those who are more narrowly educated. The same is true looking in the other direction. An artist who has gains a grasp of basic scientific principles will more likely produce truly significant work.

Similarly, far too many people believe that the sciences are something distinct from the liberal arts when, in fact, they are a core component of a liberal education. This is as true today as it was when the concept of the liberal arts were first created by the Greeks. The late Steve Jobs made this point as well as anyone in March 2011 when he said, "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough -- that it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing."

The institutional composition of WaCLA demonstrates that, despite popular belief, the breadth of the liberal arts is not controversial and the disciplines comprising the liberal arts are not in competition with one another. Two of WaCLA's partners, after all, are Humanities Washington and Washingnton STEM, organizations which, on the surface, appear to be as different as could be. What draws both together, though, is their commitment to educating the whole person, something that is beneficial for the individual and for society. This point was made clearly by Sandi Everlove in a Seattle Times article in 2011:

"We believe that studying the liberal arts feeds academic success in general and success in STEM disciplines in particular," said Sandi Everlove, interim CEO of Washington STEM. She said scientists and engineers need the critical thinking skills and ability to design new solutions that come from liberal arts coursework.

Another myth that deserves to destroyed is the belief that humanities and arts majors can't compete economically with those majoring in STEM disciplines. While it certainly is true that many graduates in STEM fields earn a higher wage immediately upon leaving college, by mid-career those difference have largely evaporated.

Finally, it's well worth pointing out that a wide range of business leaders have made it very clear that the employees they most want to hire are those who demonstrate the best attributes of a liberal education. Indeed, AAC&U has been a leader in surveying business executives and their results have been both fascinating and consistent. For example, in a recent study a huge majority of those surveyed, 93 percent, said that a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his/her undergraduate major.

Washington's participation in the LEAP initiative will help bring a holistic vision to education while encouraging students to be more broadly educated. Those of us involved in this effort believe that this partnership will help create a richer dialogue about the purpose of education and that improved understanding will pay significant social dividends.