The Presidents Poll - Summer 2013

College’s Raison d’être

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British Literature or Software Engineering?

By Margaret Foster


 

Q: Andrew Delbanco, in College, warning that liberal arts education is at risk in America, says college should be “a place where young people fight out among and within themselves contending ideas of the meaningful life.” At the moment, the most popular college major is business administration.

Given the job market, can you make a persuasive argument to your students for a liberal arts education over professional training?

A: Yes 97%, No 3%

 


For our third poll of the 255 college or university presidents whose institutions have Phi Beta Kappa chapters, we asked, essentially, what is college for? Should students study HTML code or Shakespeare? Most of the 32 respondents answered yes, vouching for the value of a liberal arts degree over vocational training. (The response rate was 13 percent: May is a busy month at universities.)

“Good professional training must include the kind of intellectual scope and imaginative flexibility that one develops only through liberal learning,” said Brennan O’Donnell, president of Manhattan College. “I’ve heard many times from graduates of our school of engineering (all of whom take required liberal arts courses) some version of the following: ‘My engineering courses got me my job; my arts courses got me my promotions.’”

But when faced with a choice between finance and Faulkner, some respondents balked. “It should never be one or the other! That’s how small minds work,” wrote John Dunn, president of Western Michigan University, who answered “no” to our narrowly posed question.

Besides, the job students train for may not exist in a decade, several presidents pointed out. “The more narrow the ‘training,’ the shorter the shelf life,” said Philip Glotzbach, of Skidmore College. Linda Hanson, president of Hamline University in St. Paul, suggested that a liberal arts degree can serve as a safety net: “Having knowledge and skills that are one dimensional, as in preparation for a specific profession, puts graduates at greater risk of market volatility than graduates who are prepared more comprehensively, with the ability to adapt over time to jobs that in some cases, have not yet been defined.”

The consensus was that college should teach you to think clearly, whether about Proust or politics. As Taylor Reveley of the College of William & Mary summed it up: “Whatever your job (and most young people will have several different ones over their careers), if it’s at all sophisticated, you’ll need to be able think rigorously, solve problems creatively, communicate effectively, have a breadth of perspective rooted in familiarity with ideas and cultures different than your own, and know how to keep learning for life,” he said. “A first-rate liberal arts education helps get you in gear on all these fronts, and more.”

 


Below are all the elaborated responses to our Summer 2013 poll.

 

Yes. Young people must acquire the habits and skills necessary for learning ideas, theories and facts that do not yet exist. No “professional” curriculum can do this so well as the arts and sciences. Moreover, arts and sciences graduates will have a significant advantage in understanding their roles in society and the cosmos. —Charles Edmondson, Alfred University

 

Yes. I can and I do. The current cycle of vocationalism, driven in part by narrow-minded, vocational ideas of education, simply ignores the fact that professional training does not prepare you for life, for leadership, or for significant success in any professional career whatsoever. Liberal arts education (which of course includes the sciences) prepares you for something more than that first, entry-level job. It prepares you to work with others, to contextualize whatever you do, and to understand the global environment of the 21st century. That’s a higher form of utility, and those of us who advocate for the liberal arts have plenty of data including AAC&U surveys of employers and a number of longitudinal studies, going back to the 1970s, that demonstrate the superior performance of liberally educated graduates. Besides, who says that business administration, properly taught, doesn’t have the potential to be a liberal arts major? —Christopher C. Dahl, State University of New York at Geneseo

 

Yes. It would take a long time fully to answer this question, but in brief: a liberal arts education prepares you with a knowledge base, skills and competencies, and habits of mind that will enable you to flourish in a changing world. None of us knows that the world will look like when you’re forty years old, but we know it won’t like the way it does now. That’s why you need transferable skills and abilities such a problem-solving, analytical thinking, communication, etc. —David Anderson St. Olaf College.

 

Yes. As the president of an institution that has stressed the integration of liberal arts and professional preparation from its founding 160 years ago, I prefer to frame this not in terms of liberal arts “over” professional training, but in terms of the necessary combination of the two. They need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue (and do argue frequently) that really good professional training must include the kind of intellectual scope and imaginative flexibility that one develops only through liberal learning. I’ve heard many times from graduates of our school of engineering (all of whom take required liberal arts courses) some version of the following: “my engineering courses got me my job; my arts courses got me my promotions.” Another version of this is “engineering (or business) taught me what to do; liberal arts taught me to understand why I do it.” —Brennan O’Donnell, Manhattan College

 

Yes. A liberal arts degree provides a broad foundation for a lifetime of choices, whether in pursuing a professional degree later or in adapting to opportunities and career paths that open throughout their lifetime. Having knowledge and skills that are one dimensional, as in preparation for a specific profession, puts graduates at greater risk of market volatility that graduates who are prepared more comprehensively, with the ability to adapt over time to jobs that in some cases, have not yet been defined. —Linda N. Hanson, Hamline University

 

Yes. Critical thinking, integrated approach to life and learning, sense of values, ability to make good, informed decisions in life and work. —Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., Fairfield University

 

Yes. Whatever your job (and most young people will have several different ones over their careers), if it’s at all sophisticated, you’ll need to be able think rigorously, solve problems creatively, communicate effectively, have a breadth of perspective rooted in familiarity with ideas and cultures different than your own, and know how to keep learning for life—a first-rate liberal arts education helps get you in gear on all these fronts, and more. —Taylor Reveley, William & Mary

 

Yes. We educate students for life, not for their first job. —Mark W. Huddleston, University of New Hampshire

 

Yes. Liberal arts are a good preparation for professional training or for the workplace, and less likely to be automated out of existence. —Anonymous

 

Yes. The skills one acquires and masters with a liberal arts education match those that are most sought-after by employers. These skills include research methods, the ability to synthesize vast amounts of information and organize it effectively, the capacity to communicate clearly through speech and writing, and the habit of mind whereby learning new facts and new skills is understood as the norm in the workplace. —Joseph Urgo, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

 

Yes. Liberal arts incorporates the critical job skills employers most want. —Robert L. Head, Rockford College

Yes. A liberal education will prepare students to think and learn continuously, and to be able to learn how to do many jobs and to have many careers as opposed to focusing on one arena. —Alecia DeCoudreaux, Mills College

 

Yes. Liberal arts education (done well) continues to be the very best preparation for a fast-changing world. The enduring value of skill such as reading critically, writing with power and clarity, incisive thinking, making connections between different intellectual domains, and boundless curiousity will serve our gradautes well and indeed give them a great advantage in the workplace. But a liberal arts education does much more than this. It prepares engaged citizens, and it literally nourishes one’s soul. —Steven Poskanzer, Carleton College

Yes. Twenty-five years from now, will you be in a job that exists today? Twenty-five yeras from now, will you be in a job that utilizes exclusively knowledge and technologies that exist today? While I am concerned about the job you acquire when your education is complete, I am far more concerned that your education prepares you for lifelong learning and equips you with the capacities that allow you to emerge as a leader in your chosen field of work in a very rapidly changing world. A liberal arts education prepares you for just such opportunity. —Rock Jones, Ohio Wesleyan University

 

Yes. A liberal arts education is the best microscope for discovering how the important aspects of life and work are connected and interconnected. —Jake B. Schrum, Southwestern University

 

Yes. The breadth and depth of a liberal arts education prepares our graduates for leadership in their lives and their careers. —Pamela Fox,

 

You need to be prepared not just for your first job, but for your fifth job as well as your life. —Wendy Libby, Stetson University

 

Yes. In a rapidly changing and unpredictable employment environment, the more narrow the “training,” the shorter the shelf life. A liberal education prepares students to continue to learn and to make the connections across disciplines necessary for them to navigate the professional landscape they will face, not just upon graduation but across a 40-50-year professional life. —Philip A. Glotzbach, Skidmore College

 

Yes. Young people must acquire the habits and skills necessary for learning ideas, theories and facts that do not yet exist. No “professional” curriculum can do this so well as the arts and sciences. Moreover, arts and sciences graduates will have a significant advantage in understanding their roles in society and the cosmos. —Charles Edmondson, Alfred University

 

No. It should never be one or the other! That’s how small minds work. —John M. Dunn, Western Michigan University

 

Yes. The preparation employers want, and the best path to a life of contribution and meaning —Steve Thorsett, Willamette University

 

Yes. Breadth in life. Michael F. Adams, University of Georgia

 

Yes. A successful liberal arts education helps students develop the ability to think critically and express themselves clearly, both in writing and orally, while also developing a broad worldview and a passion for learning. These skills and propensities are all highly valued by many employers. Freeman Hrabowski, UMBC

 

Yes. They need an education that prepares them for their second and third jobs. The keys to being competitive for these upper level jobs are ability to think critically, reason persuasively, write clearly and understand the connectivity of multiple lines of questioning. These “skills” are what a strong liberal arts education gives one. James Muyskens, Queens College, City University of New York

Margaret Foster is associate editor of The American Scholar.


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