Living — and Working — the Liberal Arts

A fellow trustee for whom I have great respect responded to my recent column about the value of the liberal arts. I had argued that the liberal arts teach college students how to think by training them how to write, articulate, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting. I questioned: “Would you rather hire a liberal arts-trained engineer who possessed these qualities or one who was simply narrowly trained as an engineer?”

My colleague suggested that what she found in her own professional experience was something different. She observed in her work setting that many liberal arts graduates did not fully display these skills and qualities and were often less serious students for whom college was more of a good time than a life-changing intellectual awakening. I suspect that her views are shared by many employers.

Who’s to Blame When Graduates Fail to Meet Employer Standards?

Let’s assume that my colleague’s observation is true. It may even be a source of the frustration of many employers — some of whom seek certificate training to bring employee competencies closer to the needs of their workforce.

But the overriding question is: Who is responsible for this outcome? Why do some liberal arts majors — who should be the best prepared for the workforce — fail to meet employer’s standards for hire?

Some of the blame rests with the recent graduates.

  • There is a time when the “light bulb” turns on in all of us.
  • It may also be that the basic education that they received before college did not train them for the rigors of college life.
  • Some employees may simply be lazy, less interested in their work, or set other priorities higher than work.
  • A few may not fully understand the expectations that a job places on an employee.

Generational Differences in Employment Attitudes, Expectations

There may also be some differences in how each generation responds to employment. A former student, who visited me several years after his graduation, explained that he was a better manager than his boss and wanted to tell his employer how to run the shop. Internally, I was both amused and horrified.

My advice was simple: “Be the first in and the last out. Learn your craft. Profit from your mistakes and those of your colleagues. But always remember why you were hired for this job.”

Reluctantly, he agreed that perhaps he should approach employment differently.

The Liberal Arts as Intellectual Foundation for Education and Life

There is a current underneath the friendly banter my colleague and I had over the inherent value of a liberal arts education. It reflects a fundamental concern that is less about students and more about the quality and comprehensiveness of the education that they receive. The question that arises is about how colleges teach the liberal arts. And more seriously, how successful are they at it?

For most colleges — and especially at private and public four-year colleges — the liberal arts are the foundation of the intellectual grounding against which the college is measured.

Colleges may be known for some specialties and even particular majors but most stake their reputation on the breadth and depth of the education they provide. The quality of their institution relies, in part, upon how well they convey their message.

It’s the basis, for example, for the “residential liberal arts college.” This term conjures up a bucolic environment where exceptional faculty working with well-qualified students embody the best in a liberal arts tradition.

But the cold reality is that many liberal arts colleges step on their lead. They fail to differentiate how their education program fully engages students.

Some self-described comprehensive colleges rely on the reputation of their majors, emphasizing the quality of economics, psychology, or engineering. It makes it difficult to see how the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Further, it clouds the answers to why students in history, geology, or music should attend since the college makes no effort to illuminate the strengths of these majors.

That’s the source of the problem. How does a prospective English or accounting major differentiate quality between College A and College B?

Best Colleges Train Narrowly by Discipline, Broadly by Intent

One answer is, of course, that they should look at factors like the reputation of the faculty and post-graduate outcomes. But a more substantive approach should be for each prospective student to ask: “how will I be trained to think broadly?”

The colleges that integrate a comprehensive curriculum that trains both narrowly by discipline and broadly by intent prepare graduates best to enter the job market.

There is a wave of mergers, acquisitions, and closures slowly building across American higher education. It may not always be those that are the best endowed who will survive.

It is likely that higher education institutions that differentiate who they are and how they contribute will be agile enough to find a path forward.

How? Lead with the liberal arts.