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The Genius of Liberal Arts Education

David Lauber

David LauberIn a recent blog post, Thomas Frey, the Innovations editor of The Futurist and Google’s top-rated futurist speaker, predicts that by 2030 over 50% of colleges will collapse.[1] Frey contends that most institutions of higher education are failing to adapt to recent trends and developments in technology. As a result, they are producing an increasing number of dissatisfied and disgruntled graduates. According to Frey, these graduates are realizing that they have been duped. They unwittingly assumed that these institutions would fulfill the promises enthusiastically displayed in their promotional material. Yet, these institutions have failed to deliver. Frey maintains, “We are trusting colleges to instill valuable knowledge in our students, and in doing so, create a more valuable workforce and society. But when those who find no tangible value begin to openly proclaim, ‘the emperor has no clothes!’ colleges will find themselves in a hard-to-defend downward spiral.” This downward spiral towards irrelevance and collapse will be impossible to stop, because, according to Frey, institutions of higher education are “slow to adapt and increasingly out of sync with the needs of business and society.”

For a college professor committed to residential, classroom focused, face-to-face, liberal arts education and whose retirement is beyond Frey’s date of the demise of a majority of America’s college, this is alarming news. It is alarming not only because it suggests that I am invested in an enterprise that is a mere decade or two from becoming obsolete. It is also alarming because it raises the question of what counts as a “valuable workforce and society” and what exactly are the “needs of business and society.”

Defining the Needs of Business and Society

Are the needs of business and society technical skills and specialized training to complete specific tasks? If this exhausts the needs of society and defines a valuable workforce, then perhaps Frey is right. A brick and mortar college might not be needed to deliver certification in a particular set of technical skills. Yet, is this the primary end of higher education? Is society’s greatest need simply the increase of potential employees who are proficient in the skills that meet the immediate requirements of businesses today?

In raising these questions, I am not at all suggesting that the question of utility is insignificant. I want to resist the refrain heard from some liberal arts purists that “education is for education’s sake” - as if purposelessness in education is a virtue. My reason for raising these questions is to suggest that our society and businesses need much more than what Frey seems to think. We could have a highly skilled and proficient workforce with little or no understanding of, for example, the common good or the ethical responsibilities that ought to shape how one applies the skills they have efficiently acquired.

A Moral Foundation

Our society is littered with situations in which highly skilled people use these skills in devastatingly destructive ways. We see this in a wide variety of sectors in public life, including business, finance, and politics. These highly competent and successful people are not deficient in terms of skills; rather, they lack a moral sensibility that goes beyond their own immediate and individual urges and desires. It is not simply the case that people have conflicting ways of engaging in moral debates. It is more troubling than that. People appear to be unable even to view choices as having a moral or ethical component. Choices are made solely on the basis of personal preference and a feeling of what will make someone happy in that immediate moment. As New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “…now more people are led to assume that some free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.”[2] Brooks is commenting on a recent sociological study focused on moral decision-making among young adults – ages 18-24. The findings of this study are troubling, and they bring into focus the pressing need for moral and character formation in our institutions of higher education.

The Genius of Liberal Arts Education: Educating the Whole Person

The genius of liberal arts education is not that it useless; rather, its genius is that it is an education that goes well beyond the immediacy of certification in a set of skills and the perceived wants and needs of the student. Liberal arts education has a purpose, and its purpose extends beyond the immediate marketability of the newly minted graduate. Its purpose and societal utility are broad and deep. This type of education is about the whole person; it is about character, moral formation and development, critical reasoning, and ethical decision-making. It exposes students to a wide variety of questions and proposed answers that are essential to viewing the world, humanity, and one’s own place within this world. Furthermore, a student must be open to the possibility of personal transformation, as this student encounters questions, perspectives, and experiences that are new and even unexpected. Liberal arts education also draws students out of themselves. It allows students to encounter ideas, concerns, and ways of viewing the world that are unfamiliar and foreign – and most likely contrary to their own concerns and expectations. In this case, liberal arts education can contribute to the development of creativity, empathy, understanding, wonder, and love for others. So, liberal arts education is not without purpose. It is not without specific outcomes in mind. Its purpose and outcomes, however, cannot be easily quantified in terms of measurable technical skills. There is a strong holistic element to liberal arts education, as this type of education is much more than mere job training or career preparation, even as it does, in fact, equip students to meet the demands of a wide variety of careers.

Although I acknowledge the danger of stubbornness among colleges and universities – an unwillingness and inability to change and adapt – I also see a virtue in not being hasty in following the latest trend. Those committed to residential liberal arts education cannot naively or optimistically dismiss Frey’s sobering prediction. He may very well be right that the perception of the value of higher education is changing drastically and rapidly in our society. In looking to the future, both long and short term, we must seriously consider what structural and institutional changes ought to be made. Yet, this must be done with without abandoning or weakening a commitment to liberal arts education. This resolve is not a matter of nostalgia or purity for the sake of purity. It is resolve that is grounded on the conviction that this type of education produces graduates year in and year out who can address and meet the genuine needs of our society and as such can bear witness to what our society ought to consider valuable.


[1] http://www.wfs.org/blogs/thomas-frey/2030-over-50-colleges-will-collapse

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/if-it-feels-right.html

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