Liberal arts colleges excel at providing students with the foundational skills — effective writing, strong oral communications, and experience in research, analysis, and synthesis — that corporate America finds so lacking in today’s workforce. These skills are more relevant and valuable than ever in the globally connected, innovation-driven 21st century economy.
The humanities enrich our souls, and sometimes even our pocketbooks.
“A broad liberal arts education is a key pathway to success in the 21st-century economy,” says Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard. Katz says that the economic return to pure technical skills has flattened, and the highest return now goes to those who combine soft skills — excellence at communicating and working with people — with technical skills.
Four former college presidents take on the humanities.
Critical thinking, appreciation of the arts and humanities and understanding how to relate to society and the natural world are essential characteristics of the educated person.
There is, without doubt, a critical need to rethink and restructure the liberal arts core to help develop intellectually lively and engaged citizens and leaders. The good news is that this also constitutes an opportunity that society is looking to colleges and universities to seize.
On February 28, 1967, Gov. Ronald Reagan spoke of "certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without." Here's why liberal education has never recovered.
A farmer reading the classics or an industrial worker quoting Shakespeare was at one time an honorable character. Today’s news stories lament bartenders with chemistry degrees. "Where once these ‘incongruities’ might have been hailed as signs of a healthy republic," Mr. Roth writes, "today they are more likely to be cited as examples of a ‘wasted’—nonmonetized—education."
"Our government takes inspiration from Athens and draws on the model of the Roman Republic, but we also inherit the Enlightenment ideal of freedom for all, even if our history has never quite lived up to it. My view—inspired by a long line of American thinkers going back to Thomas Jefferson—is that in a democratic republic the liberal arts should not be the exclusive privilege of the few. We should all have access to an education in thinking and judging for ourselves. The main goals of elementary and secondary education should center on cultivating the liberal arts, and citizens should have the opportunity to study the liberal arts in college without incurring onerous debt."
Students need an unvarnished picture of our past and the skills to understand and interpret that picture.
Navigating the tension between patriotic inspiration and historical thinking, between respectful veneration and critical engagement, is an especially difficult task, made even more complicated by a marked shift in the very composition of “we the people.” This fall, whites will constitute a minority of public-school students in the United States. “Our” past is now more diverse than we once thought, whether we like it or not.
The humanities aren’t obscure, arcane or irrelevant. They awaken our souls, influence how we think about inequality, and help us adapt to a changing world.
"Our world is enriched when coders and marketers dazzle us with smartphones and tablets, but, by themselves, they are just slabs. It is the music, essays, entertainment and provocations that they access, spawned by the humanities, that animate them — and us."
Epiphanies are hard to measure, but the humanities regularly inspire them.
The most substantial contribution of the humanities to public life does not come through empowering elite students and faculty members to reach out to their communities, but by extending the most fundamental element of a real humanities education—the power to doubt and then to reimagine—to as many people as possible. Material power, economic power, political power, all forms of human agency, are finally dependent on the power of imagination, which is why Shelley called poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." We cannot be a democracy if this power is allowed to become a luxury commodity.
Why study the humanities? Interpretation, judgment, and discernment will always be in demand, and they are cultivated and refined in the humanities. We learn, for example, how civilizations have varied across space and time. We come to understand that the world has been different and could and will be different again. Literature and the arts enable us to see through a new lens, to look at the world through others’ eyes. Students in the humanities learn how to think critically and communicate their ideas clearly, and those transferrable skills lead to rewarding lives and careers in every field of endeavor.
“You shouldn’t enter college worried about what you will do when you exit,” David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, said at a World Economic Forum panel discussion last week on the state of the humanities.
This Is Irrefutable Evidence Of The Value Of A Humanities Education
Here are 10 highly successful people, from TV hosts to presidential candidates to Wall Street CEOs, who prove that humanities majors are anything but useless -- and that money isn't a very good judge of a college major.
The New Republic posted a little forum yesterday under the title “Do Humans Still Need to Study . . . .
The New Republic posted a little forum yesterday under the title “Do Humans Still Need to Study the Humanities?” The editors asked four former presidents of major institutions to answer the question. All of them state their commitment to humanities instruction and their regret that the fields have become marginal in recent years.
But their endorsements, ironically, signal one reason for the decline. Here is the nut of each one.
“Whatever happened to the recognition that a university education has at least three purposes: helping one understand who they are and what excites and motivates them; helping understand one’s relationship to the greater world; and, also, becoming prepared for a job.” –Bernie Machen, University of Florida
“It is clear that to thrive in a society where they may have up to six different careers, business and STEM graduates need also to be curious and creative, to be critical thinkers and good communicators.” –Jim Barker, Clemson University
“The failure to incorporate studies in the liberal arts and humanities, along with STEM education, will deprive the next generation of students the critical thinking skills and context necessary to address the challenges they will face in the future.” –Charles Steger, Virginia Polytechnic Institute
“Employers send a consistent message about what they look for in a college-educated employee: the ability to write clearly, speak persuasively, analyze data effectively, work in diverse groups, and understand the competitive global knowledge environment.
“These characteristics are all nurtured and tested in a purposeful liberal arts education.” –Kevin Reilly, University of Wisconsin
The problem is simple. None of these campus leaders singles out the content of the humanities as the focus. Only President Reilly mentions a name, George Bernard Shaw, and he rightly ridicules the infusion of “contemporary popular culture” in the Western canon. But as his final quotation shows, that emphasis gives way to what the other three presidents highlight: the cognitive benefits of humanistic study.
The humanities bolster critical thinking, it is said; they instill curiosity and creativity and flexibility. Those mental dispositions match the needs of the twenty-first-century workplace, casting the humanities as superb job preparation.
No surprises here. These defenses of the humanities are routine, and have been for years, but they don’t seem to have worked. We could rehearse the logical replies, which include:
Scientific method is just as powerful an instrument of critical thinking as literary interpretation. Anthropology and other social sciences can involve just as much non-quantifiable inquiry as English and Film do. If the humanities implant such superior thinking skills, then we should expect literature professors to demonstrate a more creative sensibility and “rangy mind” (Reilly’s term) than math and chemistry professors. But . . .
Instead, however, think of the poverty of these endorsements this way. If you can’t make a case for a discipline on the basis of the actual objects studied by that discipline, it’s doomed. The field needs to have confidence in the things it takes as its subject matter.
Apparently, though, the figures in the forum don’t believe that great novels and paintings and historical events are sufficient to justify the humanities. They turn to instrumental values instead, what studying those things will do to students’ cognition.
Unfortunately, even if true, those affirmations will not increase the popularity of humanities courses. What sophomore will be drawn to a course in Renaissance sculpture because it will enhance her critical thinking skills?
Only the actual materials will sustain the humanities, but we have to believe in them enough to say so. We need more conviction than this. We need to be able to say to incoming students, “In this course, you are going to encounter words and images and ideas that are going to change your life. We’ve got Hamlet and Lear, Achilles and David, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Bennett, Augustine’s pears and Van Gogh’s stars—beauty and sublimity and truth. If you miss them, you will not be the person you could be.”
The ability to draw from other disciplines produces better scientists.
Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. Leonardo’s curiosity and passion for painting, writing, engineering and biology helped him triumph in both art and science; his study of anatomyand dissections of corpses enabled his incredible drawings of the human figure. When introducing the iPad 2, Jobs, who dropped out of college but continued to audit calligraphy classes, declared: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” (Indeed, one of Apple’s scientists, Steve Perlman, was inspired to invent the QuickTime multimedia program by an episode of “Star Trek.”)
When it comes to learning, there’s a thin line between luxury and necessity.
Best quote: "I’m not sure where “Lear” fits into work force needs."
And I didn't know that Reagan said that taxpayers shouldn't be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity” and that “there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.” And that became a pivotal moment in the discussion of higher education's ideal benefits starting the balance to tip toward utility. WOW!
In January, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the National Center for Higher Education (NCHEMS) published “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment.” Drawing upon U.S. Census data from 2010 and 2011, the report provides evidence to refute several common misconceptions about the long-term financial effects on students who elect to major in the liberal arts (defined as humanities, arts and social sciences). Among their ...
...we believe the education we provide our students is far more than just career prep for their first job. We challenge our students to develop life-long skills such as analytical thinking, clarity in written and spoken expression, collaboration, and creativity. These skills can all be developed through the arts and are valuable in any career.
Just as importantly, we believe that our mission is to help students prepare for a rich, meaningful and engaged life that goes well beyond job titles and salary levels. Exposure to and understanding of the arts is key to developing qualities of responsible citizenship.
Why professors, librarians, and politicians are shunning liberal arts in the name of STEM
In truth, the existence of the crisis is so solidly established that complaining about the hand-wringing over the crisis has itself become a cliché.
In other words, the humanities crisis is largely a positive feedback loop created by stressing out over economic outcomes.
There is little sense in denying that there is a crisis afoot in the humanities. But it’s myopic to focus on the crisis without acknowledging what the humanities really have to offer. In the absence of concrete understanding, we are left to spin about in anxious epicycles, fretting that our children’s art history and philosophy degrees will ultimately be worth no more than $4.85—the approximate cost of one page of fine bond paper. This kind of worry-worn discourse serves to reify and strengthen the downward trends in humanities enrollment. It not only makes the crisis worse; in some sense, it is the crisis. But it is painfully short-sighted to decide the value of art or literature or history solely in terms of today’s economic needs.
Liberal arts and the humanities aren't just for the elite.
Outstanding article...go read the full thing but here are two paragraphs that pack one HELL of a punch!
Traditionally, the liberal arts have been the privilege of an upper class. There are three big reasons for this. First, it befits the leisure time of an upper class to explore the higher goods of human life: to play Beethoven, to study botany, to read Aristotle, to go on an imagination-expanding tour of Italy. Second, because their birthright is to occupy leadership positions in politics and the marketplace, members of the aristocratic class require the skills to think for themselves. Whereas those in the lower classes are assessed exclusively on how well they meet various prescribed outcomes, those in the upper class must know how to evaluate outcomes and consider them against a horizon of values. Finally (and this reason generally goes unspoken), the goods of the liberal arts get coded as markers of privilege and prestige, so that the upper class can demarcate themselves clearly from those who must work in order to make their leisure and wealth possible.
We don’t intellectually embrace a society where the privileged few get to enjoy the advantages of leisure and wealth while the masses toil on their behalf. Yet that’s what a sell-out of the liberal arts entails. For the most part, the wealthy in this country continue to pay increasingly exorbitant tuition to private prep schools, good liberal arts colleges, and elite universities, where their children get strong opportunities to develop their minds, dress themselves in cultural capital, and learn the skills necessary to become influential members of society. Meanwhile, the elite speak of an education’s value for the less privileged in terms of preparation for the global economy. Worse yet, they often support learning systems designed to produce “good employees”—i.e., compliant laborers. Then, money for public education is slashed, and tuition soars. Those in the middle class, let alone the poor, have to fight an ever-steepening uphill battle to spend their time and money on the arts appropriate to free people.
The question is how its value is recognized by students and communicated to employers.
There is a growing consensus among students, parents and employers that today’s young liberal arts graduates lack the skills needed to succeed in the post-Recession job market. Stories about this skills gap abound, such as the recent New York Times essay “Opening an Employment Door to the Young”.
This belief is growing stronger despite studies by higher education leaders arguing that a liberal arts degree is still a good investment today. Smart people may disagree on the value of a liberal arts degree, but no matter which side you are on, things must change. Schools can’t continue to deliver an expensive credential that is not seen as delivering a viable path to a career—no matter what the long-term value. Here are four things higher education leaders and students must do differently to make liberal arts education economically sustainable—for all.
1. Stop the hand wringing about the real value of a liberal arts education.
Higher education leaders are frustrated by what they see as unfair treatment in the media, and overreaction by parents to the declining value of the liberal arts degree. But any strategy to counter the public’s negative perceptions with long-term data and rational arguments is doomed to fail.
One college junior last week confessed to me she had changed her major from microbiology to English, even though she sees her new major as “dangerous” in terms of future employment. Parents, students and the press have all heard too many first hand stories about the challenges of today’s job market. Trying to convince them otherwise only sounds like whining. Stop it now! It’s not the value of liberal arts that needs to be debated. It’s how skills acquired with the degree are recognized by students and communicated to employers.
2. Use the entire school community to create an employable graduate.
With tuition discount rates climbing, as more colleges and universities struggle to attract good students, the current revenue model is unsustainable for all but the most elite and well-endowed colleges and universities. To prosper in the new competitive environment, institutions must engage the whole school system in supporting the personal and career development of their students.
I recently worked with a leading research university to align the efforts of its huge, decentralized staff to transform the career support infrastructure. This type of collaboration to improve support for liberal arts students means aligning the activities of administrators, faculty, academic and career advisors, as well as alumni, parents, fund raising staff, and students themselves. This is no easy task. But savvy higher education leaders recognize that increasing the employability of their grads requires major culture change that involves the whole system.
3. Attack the job search “skills gap” head on.
A major reason so many liberal arts students struggle after graduation is they have no clue about the real skills needed to pursue and land a job in today’s hyper-competitive job market. A lot of schools need to reinvent their traditional career services function so it provides leading edge tools and tutoring to prepare students for the “real world.”
Updated networking techniques, ready access to helpful alumni, education about technologies like applicant tracking systems, and intensive coaching for Skype and in-person interviews must become standard offerings to make liberal arts students more competitive.
4. Increase student engagement with personal and career development activities.
When it comes to improving the employment prospects of college students, the elephant in the room is the difficulty of convincing young adults to fully engage with the activities needed to effectively launch their career. In the research for my book Graduate to a Great Job, more than 50% of “successful” grads I studied didn’t know what they wanted to do when they graduated.
Even students who express angst about future employment seem unwilling to invest sufficient time to master the skills needed for success, such as extensive networking, in-depth industry research, resume writing and interviewing. My research indicates this is partly due to other demands of student life, as well as an emotional resistance to “growing up.” But another factor is not understanding how much they have to learn, and how little students—and their parents—know about what it takes to land a great job today.
Motivating students to engage early and often in the career development process may be the greatest challenge facing higher education leaders today. This will be particularly problematic for large public universities with more limited resources. Private schools, like Wake Forest and Reed College, with reputations for proactively addressing career development with their students, are committed to starting this conversation freshman year.
To increase the real and perceived value of the liberal arts degree, schools must stop debating this issue and start investing in infrastructure and culture changes that align the entire school behind efforts to prepare graduates for the future. This can be done without compromising the ideals that make a liberal arts education worth fighting for.
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