The robots are coming! This is among the many anxious refrains coming from higher education these days. Colleges and universities find themselves in a defensive crouch, facing off against non-believers, struggling to articulate the real-world need for the fundamental habits of mind that characterize a person educated in the liberal arts.
But what good are critical thinking, rhetorical analysis, or lifelong learning when confronting the oncoming storms of automation, AI, Big Data, distributed consciousness, and “wicked problems” like the breakdown of civic discourse, climate change, immigration, and on and on? Parents and prospective students worry that the benefits of higher education no longer outweigh the high costs, and rightly so if educators are unable to translate, overtly and authentically, the value of the liberal arts. Thoughts like these inspire me to champion the power of higher education to shape the future.
In a 2019 editorial, Michael Geisler, then president of Manhattanville College, argued compellingly that a liberal arts education equips twenty-first century students to compete in the future workforce. He identifies five critical job skills that reflect the real-world proficiencies that a liberal arts education provides: 1) contextual thinking, 2) systems thinking, 3) cultural fluency, 4) experiential learning, and 5) entrepreneurial skills.
[…] through cross-training in multiple disciplines, a liberal arts education teaches graduates to connect: connect across contexts, connect the seemingly disparate parts of a system that functions only as a whole, connect with people who come to the table with different cultural backgrounds and problem-solving skills, understand that learning is based on experience (and includes failure and risk) and connect their dreams to new products, new scenarios, or new solutions in a real-world environment.
Immediately apparent is that these skills are uniquely human and sorely needed. Those of us in higher education understand that the knowledge and skills we provide do, in fact, prepare students to connect in meaningful ways to a wider world. Yet for the uninitiated, that very connection seems to have been lost, drowned out by anxieties about an uncertain future, technophobia, fear of losing one’s privilege, and the belief that our only hope rests in the “hard skills” of STEM, cut loose from broader frameworks of meaning.
Even my own faith in the promise of the Liberal Arts has wobbled as I contemplate the pending storms of recession, inflation, and the cliff. I have to remind myself that such thinking pays little consideration to the vital importance of the complex skills and experiences cultivated in civic contexts, skills that shape and inform in immanently practical ways our actions in the real world. My claim is not that we should not be leaning into STEM. Rather, I am arguing that it is not an either/or proposition between STEM and the Liberal Arts, and the sooner we marry the human sciences with the human arts the more purposeful the educations and careers of our students become, both to themselves and the wider world.
How, as campus leaders, can we redraw these lines of connection to chart clearer pathways for students to apply their knowledge, skill, and passion to the needs of the future–their own needs and the needs of others? From the field of higher education more broadly we are told that our curricula must implement high-impact practices like problem-based inquiry, project-based learning, and real-world experience. The harder question is how? What does this look like on the ground, and how do we sell it to those whose faith in the value of our trade is under attack?
One area in which these questions about communicating the pragmatic value of liberal education seems most relevant is in the work of making our communities more diverse and inclusive. In fact, we are living through a watershed moment as academic institutions are excoriated for daring to initiate constructive and civil conversations about the history of systemic inequities. We mustn’t retreat, but we must also find productive ways to welcome to the table those who currently see DEI as threatening.
This rapidly evolving flip-side to (reaction against?) diversity, equity, and inclusion requires us to acknowledge the importance of creating civil spaces where students with a variety of political and ideological dispositions can safely learn and grow as citizens in a multicultural world. A recent survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) reports that after nearly two years of being isolated in “pandemic information bubbles,” students are untrained in handling the emotional strain of moving beyond their ideological comfort zones. As campuses increasingly reflect the demographic and cultural shifts in our nation, university leaders will be challenged not just to address the known issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but must also respond effectively to the emerging, as-of-yet unknown challenges of what the AAC&U describes as the “multiple psychosocial and ideological dynamics” that will begin to play out in unexpected ways on our campuses. Navigating these changes in our campus communities will, no doubt, be difficult but also, I believe, deeply rewarding.