Is there a Place for the Liberal Arts in the 21st Century?


Aberdeen-University-LIbraryThe answer is emphatically yes. But to retain our relevance we must continue to do what we do well– provide an academically rich and challenging environment for young scholars that prepares them to think critically about the world around them. And push toward an educational future that marries knowledge, skill and application. Too often when prospective students ask, what can I do with this degree we fail to provide a cogent, satisfactory or reassuring answer—as though it is axiomatic to a nervous generation of career minded students and their parents that there is a relationship between a liberal education and employment.

There is a clear connection. But we cause this question by creating a disjuncture between knowledge, skill and application on one hand and by conflating them on the other. A liberal arts colleague told me disdainfully that she did not have a pre-professional major as though her subject area was not sullied by demands for employment. Really? If students aren’t taking their incredible education and gaining employment then what exactly are we doing? Another colleague told me, “We are academics. We don’t do application.” But knowledge for knowledge sake is highly problematic for students who have been well versed in the instrumental value of a college education.

Stuck in the 20th Century Many liberal arts institutions hold fast to discreet academic silos where students passively receive knowledge from subject experts along a knowledge assembly line that does not encourage synthesis or application. This is problematic since professions in the 21st century require employees to synthesize vast amounts of information, understand and solve complex problems, articulate solutions, deconstruct multilayered systems and create new knowledge in service of outcomes. We fail to prepare students for this world, but we could.

I suggest we trade in our own currency, ideas, and consider how we might reinvent ourselves to educate 21st century citizens. This means shifting the focus from academic disciplines to our students, to the world they will inherit. It means being intentional about the relationship between education and application.

When students and parents come through my office I tell them that the liberal arts will not train them for a specific career. Instead, we are educating them for a lifetime. This includes 5-6 career changes, 15-20 job changes, participation in a global economy and the ability to navigate a rapidly changing market where about 50-60% of the jobs they will apply for in the next 10 years have not yet been invented. We are thus preparing students for career fluidity in a rapidly changing geopolitical and economic landscape. The education we deliver must reflect this. Form must follow function.

A Proposal The American Association of Colleges and Universities proposed through the LEAP program echoes the need for change. Carol Schneider suggests that through an integrated project-based cross-disciplinary work colleges, “actively involve students in working on problem-centered inquiry from the time they enter college….” to “engage [students in] complex problems and questions and to ensure that they develop facility in evidence-based inquiry, analysis, and decision making.”

I suggest we push this model further and allow problem-based, cross-disciplinary inquiry to change the way we think about who we are and what we do and not just change our students. What would it look like if instead of organizing majors around content areas (biology, psychology, philosophy, literature) we organized around local and global issues and our content experts worked not in discreet departments but in problem solving areas helping students integrate theory and methodology across disciplines to produce new knowledge and new ways of knowing? What if our courses were woven in and through internships, mentorships, apprenticeships and problem-solving practicums in which the knowledge of professionals had parity with and helped develop academic knowledge?

 In this model, areas of study might include Climate Change, Resource Inequity, Food and Agriculture, Health and Health Disparities, Political Unrest. Students could become content experts while learning to integrate theory and methodology across disciplines. We could deliver core subjects in and through these problems. Students might double major in a problem, or a problem and a geopolitical region. Consider how knowledge could marry application. To understand political unrest students must understand the ways in which history, politics, economics, religion, government, social change, constructs of gender and gender relations all work together to produce tension and upheaval or promote stability. Students must understand the ways in which literature and art carry messages of hope or revolt, pain or pleasure; must appreciate the ways in which geography, biology and botany shape the political economy and must use philosophical inquiry to identify critical questions. What if our modes of inquiry too were integrated so students could apply an array of methodologies and justifications to explore complex questions?

Students who major in health and health disparities may look one semester at disease transmission and cessation. They would have to understand how the chemical composition and half-life of drugs is wedded to the geopolitical economics of production and distribution of pharmaceuticals in the developing world. They would also have to understand people’s beliefs, practices and constructs of health, illness, personhood and gender. What if for a semester our brightest young minds worked in industry to develop a workable implementation plan for the rapid distribution of antimalarial drugs?

Organized around social problems, we could deliver integrated knowledge that marries theory and utility and holds fast to relevance. We could answer the question, what can I do with this degree, by graduating students who are prepared to increase sustainable agriculture, re-structure education, develop plans for equitable global resource distribution, reduce human suffering, work on teams to develop rapid responses to epidemics, or interrupt global unrest. We could graduate students who enter the workforce ready to transform the world.



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