By Derek Graf

Critics of liberal education seem obsessed with immediate practicality. Or at least the visibility of practicality.

For example, Gallup advises higher education institutions to “demonstrate their value to consumers by increasing their alignment with the workforce.” The author also suggests that the field of liberal arts might attract more students after some “rebranding” to avoid the political connotations associated with the word “liberal.” Such a name change, the logic goes, would allow the humanities to promote and emphasize their relevance to students of the 21st century. A post on Gallup’s website responds to a poll in which many U.S. adults expressed concerns about the financial stability, value, and overall effectiveness of higher education.

Students look at a group assignment on a table as an undergraduate teaching assistant points out something on the paper
Students in Geology 101 work on an in-class assignment. Problem-solving and critical thinking skills apply to all forms of intellectual development, from the humanities to the sciences.

Note the language used to describe the basic structure of the university: With students as consumers, colleges must compete for their business. In an earlier post, I discussed the problems that arise from conflating teaching with customer service. From that perspective, graduation seems less an accomplishment than a financial transaction, and the human element of learning becomes marginalized for the sake of careerism.

How can the humanities demonstrate their value—often intangible—to students? As Elizabeth H. Bradley explains in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, students who study the liberal arts have a strong capacity to “recognize the larger patterns of human behavior.” While I agree with her observation, it’s still difficult at first glance to say exactly how the study of literature, visual art, photography, film, and so on prepares students for the non-academic workforce. But that’s what makes the humanities more vital than ever.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I don’t believe that we should measure the success of a liberal arts education by the statistics of job placement. Without such statistics, how does one measure the growth and development of students as human beings in the higher education system? As Gianpiero Petriglieri claims in a recent post for Harvard Business Review, “once they stop having to be useful, the humanities become truly meaningful.”

The idea here is that a central tenet of the humanities—concern for and exploration of the human condition—becomes lost when this particular field of study functions only as an instrument for financial or occupational satisfaction. The capitalist pursuit does a disservice to humanistic education, because it ignores the potential for literature and art to make an impact in the context of social justice, for example, or to raise awareness about historical and systemic inequalities. Outside the narrow perspective of the workforce, the humanities have tremendous value. Studying the humanities isn’t practical or pragmatic in any materialist sense, and it shouldn’t have to be.

Must everything be marketable?

But to return to an earlier question raised by the Gallup post: what is the workforce? Is this the same arena as the “real world” that is so often held up as an intimidating contrast to one’s college years? If so, then the workforce offers a range of opportunities for which higher education institutions cannot completely account.

While universities can provide internships and training courses for specific occupations, the idea of a workforce is too nebulous for any cohesive design at alignment. Structural attempts to holistically align the university curriculum with the job market will change the university into a vocational school. If that happens, then students will not have access to courses—in the humanities, for example—that offer no practical advice or preparation for a particular job.

So what happens if, instead of promoting “marketable skills” and “essential qualities” for a student’s future career, humanities courses emphasize their lack of practicality, their resistance to pragmatism? In an article for the Intercollegiate Review, James Matthew Wilson says that “the primary task of liberal education is to plant your mind with images of the good and the beautiful, images to which you are naturally drawn, often without knowing why.”

The good and the beautiful, sure, but also the bad and the ugly, to which many of us are also naturally drawn. Rather than present literature, art, and film as timeless texts that hold timeless truths, as Wilson does, it’s important to communicate to students that one seeks out the humanities for problems, not for answers. For ways not to act, as well as for models of ethical and moral behavior.

Studying the humanities in a rigorous, committed manner helps students acquire skills that will benefit them as applicants and employees. As Gerald Greenberg explains in this Washington Post article, humanities students bring to the workplace valuable “problem-solving and critical thinking abilities.” These skills are not specific to any particular job. Instead, they apply to a range of occupations. An education in the humanities might seem opaque to those who seek a one-to-one correlation between one’s degree and one’s career. However, with greater consideration of the actual tasks and exercises presented to students in humanities courses, it becomes more and more clear how well-equipped such students are for work both inside and outside the academy.

Of course, college is expensive, and many students likely believe that visual arts or creative writing courses offer nothing but a waste of time and money. It’s beyond the means of this post to offer a solution for the rising costs of higher education, but I don’t think that the answer for the humanities lies in emphasizing productivity and practicality. Instead, a liberal arts education should present itself in honest, direct terms: these classes are frustrating, challenging, and often overwhelming in their scope. And yet, while students won’t necessarily be able to apply the content of such courses to their future occupations, they will be able to deal with the many frustrations, challenges, and overwhelming sensations that arise in any workplace environment. The humanities offer a distinct, unorthodox path to job preparation, one that finds comfort in the uncomfortable.

The thinking process is crucial

In my experience as an instructor of creative writing (poetry, short fiction, literary nonfiction, etc.) and composition, I have seen my students struggle with the practice of writing or reading just for the sake of writing or reading. “Are we going to turn this in?” or “Is this for a grade?” are common questions I encounter when I ask students to perform a free-writing exercise or dialogue activity, for example. There are a few problems that arise in this scenario. One of them is that when I tell my students that they will not turn in or be graded for such writing, many students simply don’t do the work. They don’t see the practical value of composition when it isn’t tied to a grade. The central question behind this response is, to my mind, “What’s the point?”

I understand and sympathize with their frustration, but I also want them to embrace that feeling, to work in a space of indeterminacy, and see what they can produce under those circumstances. My attempt is to discourage even more troubling questions that often arise in writing classes: “What do you want me to say?” or “If I say this will I get an A?” I refuse to treat my students like employees, to give them narrow confines of expression, to reduce all writing in the academic space to a letter grade.

Why? Because unlike Wilson, I do not believe that “critical thinking” encourages a “skeptical, suspicious view of the world.” Instead, it’s my opinion that critical thinking, which students must perform independently to achieve the higher-end goals of a particular assignment, allows for a more comprehensive and considerate view of the world.

The value of the humanities, then, lies in the processes of critical thinking, interpretation, discernment, and deliberation. It might not be possible to tell from a prospective employee’s transcript that her Introduction to American Literature course required these forms of mental and emotional work, but it will certainly become clear over time that such skills often originate from the tasks one performs in humanities courses. These classes have long-term rather than short-term benefits, and without them (or without encouragement to enroll in them), any alignment for the workforce will have serious gaps in its foundation.


Derek Graf is a graduate fellow at the Center for Teaching excellence and a graduate teaching assistant in English.

By Doug Ward

Education has always been a balancing act. In our classes, we constantly choose what concepts to emphasize, what content to cover, what ideas to discuss, and what skills to practice. As I wrote last week, the choices we make will influence our students throughout their careers.

Higher education is now facing a different kind of balancing act, though, one that involves not just what we teach and who we are but what college is and should be about and how it fits into the broader fabric of society. The recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities made clear just how tenuous a grasp higher education has on credibility and how broad the gap is between internal and external perceptions of colleges and universities.

Consider this from Brandon Busteed, a former Gallup executive who is now president of Kaplan University Partners:

“If you were to take the most brilliant marketing minds in the world, put them in a room for a day, lock them in there and say, please emerge with words that would be the worst possible combination to use in attracting students to higher education, they would emerge with one combination called ‘liberal arts.’ ”

Ouch!

To explain that, he referred to a study of high-performing, low-income students at Stanford. When asked what they thought of liberal arts, they most commonly replied: “What’s that?” Or “I’m not liberal.” Or “I’m not good at or interested in art.”

Lest those of you in professional programs start to feel smug, read on.

The negative connotations of ‘college’

In Gallup polling, Busteed said, Americans express confidence in “higher education” and “post-secondary education.” They see those things as important to the future. When asked about “college” or “university,” though, the warm feelings suddenly chill.

“Why?” Busteed asked. “When we say ‘college,’ we think about traditional-age students. We think about a residential experience. We think about Animal House movies.”

In other words, Americans see a need for education to prepare them for jobs and careers. Increasingly, though, the typical student who needs additional education looks nothing like Flounder, Babs or Bluto and wants nothing to do with a system they see as driven by liberal ideology and populated by drunken misfits more interested in toga parties than in preparing for the future.

“The words are holding us back,” Busteed said.

A new study from the Pew Research Center reinforces that. According to Pew, Democrats rank improving education as the second most important priority for the president and Congress, trailing only reducing health-care costs. Republicans, on the other hand, see defending against terrorist attacks, fixing social security and dealing with immigration as far more important than education or health care.

Another divide shows up in the Pew survey, with about three-quarters of women and those between 18 and 49 years old saying that improving education should be the top priority. Men and older Americans see education as a less pressing issue. The Pew poll doesn’t distinguish K-12 from higher education, but it does point to the complicated relationship Americans have with education of all sorts today. And the way educators see education and the way the public sees education are vastly different.

“Talk of higher education as a public good, of investing in societal education, has been replaced by talk of return on investment: tuition in exchange for jobs,” Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U said during the organization’s annual meeting. She added: “The fact that Americans believe more in higher education than in colleges and universities is a clear indication that the way we talk about what we do in academia shapes public perception.”

Employers’ conflicted feelings

That perception applies not only to the public whose voices carry weight in state and federal funding of education but to the businesses and organizations that hire college graduates.

survey AAC&U conducted last year found that only 63% of business executives and hiring managers have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in colleges and universities. That’s higher than the 45% of the public who express confidence in colleges and universities. And if you ask those same business leaders whether college is worth the time and expense, 85% to 88% say yes, according to the AAC&U survey.

The responses indicate a clear ambivalence about higher education, though. Nearly all of the business leaders say they are asking employees to take on more responsibilities and more complex tasks than in the past. Nearly all of them say they are looking for prospective employees who think critically and communicate clearly, possess intellectual and interpersonal skills that will lead to innovative thinking, and have an ability to use a broader range of skills than workers in past years did. Many of them just aren’t convinced that college is preparing students for that.

Many academics will scoff at the focus on business leaders. A university education isn’t the same as job training, they say. It isn’t about tailoring classes to meet the specific demands of the business world and molding students into corporate clones.

I agree. And yet as the cost of college has risen precipitously, students increasingly want assurances that their degrees will lead to good jobs. We can – and should – talk about how our degrees will make students into better people and better citizens, about how our courses prepare students to face the unpredictable challenges of the future. Students want that, too. Above all, though, they want to be able to pay off their loans once they graduate. As Busteed told the AAC&U gathering, today’s students, as “consumers of higher education,” want more efficient and less expensive paths through college, and they want their coursework aligned with the jobs they will take upon graduation.

So we are back to the balancing act that those of us inside colleges and universities face. We want our students to leave with disciplinary knowledge but must help them understand how our disciplines lead to careers. We fret over week-to-week understanding of course material even though much of it is very likely to be obsolete within a few years. We try to teach in a reasoned, meaningful, inclusive way even as a partisan, skeptical public questions our epistemological foundations. We carry the burden of a name – college or university – that has lost its cachet even as a wary and reluctant public continues to see a need for what we do.

What’s the point of a major?

A colleague at AAC&U pointed to an enormous paradox in teaching and learning today. As students flood into what they see as “safe” majors of business and engineering, the liberal arts and sciences have donned the mantle of job skills. English isn’t just about literature and poetry; it’s about the communication skills that employers prize. History isn’t just about an understanding of the past; it’s about critical thinking skills that will get you a job. Political science isn’t just about the machinations of government; it’s about learning to work in groups so you can thrive in a career.

All of those things are true, but as my colleague reminded me, students don’t choose a major because they think it will make them better at group work, improve their critical analysis, or allow them to make better decisions independently. They choose a major because they are passionate about literature or linguistics or biology or politics or French or journalism or (name the major).

So more than ever, we educators must approach our work in multiple layers. We must balance disciplinary depth with broad-scale career skills, short-term understanding with long-term viability. We must learn to explain our majors more meaningfully and our roles as academics more thoughtfully. We must help our students explore the many facets of our majors while helping them connect to the ideas and philosophies of other majors. We must guide students through the details of disciplinary competency while recognizing that only the broader skills and experiences – what the media historian Claude Cookman calls the “residue” of education – generally sticks with students over the years.

Higher education has always been about exploration and understanding. As those of us who make up higher education balance the many demands pressing down on us today, though, we must undertake a broader exploration of just who we are because, increasingly, those on the outside don’t know.


Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The criticism of liberal education often carries a vicious sting. For instance, listen to Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor:

“Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great. It’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-fil-A.’”

Examples of posters created during the workshop.

Or Gov. Matthew Bevin of Kentucky as he describes his budget priorities for higher education:

“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than to French literature majors. All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so. They are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer like engineers.”

Those sorts of disparaging comments certainly demonstrate an ignorance of higher education, but they also reflect the use of higher education as a political foil as the cost of college – and student debt – rises. Those simplistic characterizations have power. They stick in people’s minds and play into stereotypes of academia as an ivory tower separate from society at large and out of touch with the vast majority of Americans. They also reflect a growing emphasis on college as a job factory rather than a place to help citizens learn to think more deeply and more critically, and to expand their understanding of a complex and ever-changing world.

Higher education has done a poor job of pushing back against those criticisms, as I wrote earlier this week. Faculty members and administrators are eager to do better, though, as I found last week in a workshop I led at the annual meeting of the Association of American College and Universities in Washington. I gave participants a handout in which I had categorized common criticisms of liberal education and provided examples like the ones above. After a brief discussion, I asked them to identify an audience and create their own messages to address one or more of the criticisms. The results were excellent, showing a steely resolve to reclaim the reputation of higher education.

Categorizing criticisms

I generally see six types of criticisms of liberal education. Most come from outside the academy, but some come from inside. There are overlapping aspects among all of them, and no doubt there are others. (For instance, one workshop participant pointed out the complaint that the liberal arts focuses heavily on the ideas of long-dead white men.) These are the common ones that I’ve identified, though, and that I shared in the workshop:

  • College costs too much to waste on “impractical” subjects
  • The study of the liberal arts has become an anachronism
  • Liberal education is out of touch with the “real world”
  • Liberal education isn’t keeping up with a changing world
  • Liberal education has lost its meaning
  • Identity consciousness has tainted liberal education

I asked workshop participants to work in pairs or groups, choose one or more of those criticisms, and create both a soundbite and more substantial messages that highlight the strengths of liberal education. Some rejected the idea of soundbites. That’s understandable. Matching soundbite to soundbite can easily devolve into the equivalent of a playground brawl rather than a meaningful conversation. Nonetheless, I think it is important that we distill the importance of liberal education into key elements to use when talking with students, parents, donors, community members, politicians, and even colleagues.

Here are examples of how workshop participants rose to that challenge:

  • Change is a constant. Liberal education provides the means to create and navigate that change.
  • Liberal education is a pedagogy and an ethos, not a set of disciplines.
  • Finding a path and a voice in the world.
  • Your life is better when we think better together.
  • Get a career, get a purpose, get a life, get a college education.
  • Build a team that knows how to think.
  • Liberal arts will get your promotion.
  • Pivot for your next opportunity.
  • Invest in the long run.
  • We teach essential skills for living fully and freely, everything you need for citizenship and prosperity, self-fulfillment and self-determination.

Two groups focused specifically on Republican donors, drawing on the language of business to make a connection:

  • Liberal education builds workplace skills: adaptability, flexibility, communication skills, evaluation and analytical skills, interpersonal skills in diverse populations. It also instills ethics and fosters curiosity.
  • The liberal arts yields effective communication skills in multiple modes, which is core to successful messaging, interaction, negotiation, innovation, collaboration, creative problem-solving, sales and marketing, global perspective, diverse audiences and cultures.

As I said, there are dangers in trying to compress the complexities of liberal education into soundbites or even more substantial talking points. We will never do it justice. By thinking in those terms, though, we can better identify the components of higher education we want to emphasize and better prepare ourselves for conversations with a broad range of constituencies.

So let’s keep talking.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.