To The Editor:
Thank you for your column in the weekend Missourian, “Change in Education.” Your astute observations were refreshing in the midst of national antiliberal arts education rhetoric.
While the denigration of liberal arts education is a nationwide problem, it hits hardest in economically disadvantaged school systems, where the goal seems to be to gravitate toward efficiency and ensuring future employability of students — starting earlier and earlier. By the time young people are considering higher education, the focus on STEM, trades and workforce training has reached a frantic pitch.
Of course, the original purpose of the university was to create thinkers who could fully engage in civic life. A liberal arts education was seen as essential to a free and functional society. At Forbes, Willard Dix writes, “Institutions of higher education don’t just turn out worker bees; they are the repositories of human history and culture. Eliminating subjects without careful consideration deprives students of connections to the past, present and future.” He points out that liberal arts inspire students to “think critically about social systems, culture and history.” The liberal arts and humanities help shape students into critical thinkers, good communicators and well-rounded human beings — which will certainly serve them well in any career, and in their lives. All students should be seen as deserving of this kind of intellectual training.
While the liberal arts are an essential complement to any program of study, students also can be well-served by receiving degrees in these disciplines. A study released last February by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences showed that humanities graduates had high career satisfaction, are gainfully employed and serve in supervisory roles. As students are increasingly persuaded against majoring in “useless” fields like English, philosophy, history, political science, journalism or social sciences, we consistently hear that these graduates are the ones who have the skills that are sought in all fields.
Here is a sampling of recent headlines in national publications: “Liberal Arts Majors Are the Future of the Tech Industry,” “Surprise: Humanities Degrees Provide Great Return on Investment,” “Liberal Arts: Quite Possibly the Major of Future CEOs” and “Why This Tech CEO Keeps Hiring Humanities Majors.” Students who want to pursue degrees in these disciplines should be encouraged to do so, instead of languishing in advice that pushes them away from the possibilities.
With the national push toward hands-on training and workforce development, not understanding the full role of the community college in academia is a great threat to democracy. In her research, Dr. Natasha Quadlin (assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University) showed that students who are middle to upper class are more likely to choose academic degree programs that may take longer or not translate to a specific job; this includes, of course, the liberal arts and humanities. Do we need a well-trained workforce that can fill skilled trade jobs?
Yes. However, we have encouraged and are increasingly encouraging only certain students—typically first-generation working class or impoverished students — to take that road. The liberal arts, while at risk everywhere, will always be a viable option to the economically privileged student. Socioeconomic inequality is intensified and democracy is threatened when liberal arts education is only valued for those in certain school districts or at elite universities. Community colleges can and should be the great equalizer for not only workforce development, but also rigorous academic training in preparation for baccalaureate and graduate degrees.
Technology will advance, jobs will change, but the need for human beings to be critical thinkers and clear communicators is essential to the survival of democracy and civilization. If we focus our efforts only toward preparing people for the workforce, we will be chasing the uncatchable, as we well know that technological advancements, globalization and automation mean that many jobs that will exist 10 years from now are unimaginable now. However, if individuals are equipped with critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills and are prepared to live in a diverse society, the possibilities are endless.
When students are exposed to the liberal arts, they see how everything — every bit of history and humanity and art and technology — is connected. The liberal arts and humanities, which at their core make us more human, must be readily accessible and encouraged for all of our students at every level.