One of the things I’ve found interesting about higher education in the United States is that the public seems to increasingly favor specialized degrees while the job market is moving toward uncertainty, meaning that students with specialized skills are less likely to get the jobs they are trained for. For today’s job market, it appears (from my potentially biased position as a liberal arts professor) that what students actually need is a well-rounded education that will prepare them to think through a variety of potential situations rather than to perform any particular task. Two recent articles reveal that I’m not alone.
The first, an op-ed by Michael S. Roth in the New York Times, argues that the goal of any education should be to instill students with “the inclination to learn.” He states:
The inclination to learn from life can be taught in a liberal arts curriculum, but also in schools that focus on real-world skills, from engineering to nursing. The key is to develop habits of mind that allow students to keep learning, even as they acquire skills to get things done. This combination will serve students as individuals, family members and citizens — not just as employees and managers.
The second, by Barry Glassner in USA Today, reports that a national study by the Annapolis Group has found that this belief in developing one’s ability to learn and to reason is echoed by liberal arts graduates:
Among the key findings: Liberal arts students are academically anchored — not adrift — and community minded. They value supportive learning environments and teaching that stretches their abilities. Strong mentoring, abundant intern and community service opportunities, and working directly with professors rather than graduate assistants — these things matter.
So, what is the ultimate liberal arts payoff? Alumni declare they are well prepared for both graduate study and the workplace, having developed intellectual, practical and leadership skills vital to scholarly inquiry, career advancement and life as public citizens.
I wonder when the public, and those in charge of the shrinking higher ed budgets, will catch on.