Last week I had the chance to listen to four very thoughtful commentaries on the future of the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges. Each speaker did an excellent job of making the case for the liberal arts and for colleges like my alma mater and my employer, Augustana College. I was impressed with the depth of analysis and thought each put into their comments.
I do think it’s worth nothing, though, that the speakers again affirmed that it’s very difficult to easily describe the liberal arts and the outcomes of a liberal arts education. This is not to say that it is impossible to describe the outcomes; in fact, I thought each speaker explained the outcomes and benefits quite well. My observation is that it’s not easy and it takes a lot of time to get the explanation right.
Following the speakers there was a brief Q & A during which the following question was asked: How do you market the liberal arts to prospective students?
I braced myself for the “killer answer”…and waited.
Each panelist did a fine job answering this tough question. But, I found myself thinking to myself that there has to be a better way to easily answer this question.
Should begin thinking about liberal arts education as a skills- and experience-based education?
Could describing what we do this will help us reframe the idea that liberal arts is education is about art and liberal political views? Or, that liberal arts = expensive and small (i.e. if you are expensive and small you are a liberal arts college)
Typically, it is thought that skills-based training is reserved for professional, technical, or vocational training. Virginia Postrel’s article in Bloomberg “How art history majors power the U.S. economy” helped begin to think a little clear about this. However, I feel like her reference to “Learning to learn” is the sort of thing that continue to confuse or confound people. So, I’ve taken my own stab at answering the question.
When I think about liberal arts education, I am compelled to think about skill acquisition and intentional experiences being at the center of what we do. Admittedly, the skills we develop and foster as more sophisticated (I’d argue more important) than traditional trade skill development, like teaching someone how to place widgets.
At the center of an effective general education program is skill development, right?
Perhaps it is time for us to seize the term skills-based as our own and do a more effective job describing why and how the skills a liberal arts education develops are so critical for employers and our nation.
Think about the skills we develop.
Do we not strive to develop the following skills: critical thinking, problem solving, creative thinking, communicating and analysis? Are these not critically important skills for employers? Isn’t this what we are trying to do? Isn’t this what we are great at doing? Don’t we do this more effectively than others? Should we be proud to say that we emphasize skill-development in these areas?
Furthermore, isn’t it though the types of experiences we offer that these skills are more fully developed? For example, an emphasis on writing, debate and dialog in class help to develop these skills, as does a commitment to strong advising, a residential environment and engaged co-curricular programming.
I don’t think we need to be fancy and long-winded about our explanation of what it is we do.
In my opinion…
- Liberal arts education is a skills- and experience-based education.
- Liberal arts education focuses on the right skills and the right experiences to make our graduates the leaders of tomorrow.
- The skills and experiences provided by liberal arts college result in someone being better in their chosen career, rather than just being trained for their career.
Let’s enthusiastically embrace our brand of skills-based education. And, let’s tell the world that we provide our graduates with the skills they need and the world wants.
How do you react to the thought of describing to liberal arts education as skills-based?
How do you react to my contention that the skills we develop are more important over the long run than pre-professional skills?
W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission