There is a lot of angst within the Liberal Arts community - and rightly so. We are in the midst of a crisis of conscience of sorts when it comes to a Liberal Arts education and some pretty smart people are beginning to weigh in. Salon.com ran an article in 2011, asking if we should "kill the liberal arts degree", suggesting that in a highly competitive and technically skill-driven economy it is going to become much more difficult for candidates with philosophy and writing degrees to find competitive work opportunities. The Salon article references an even more bleak 2011 article from the New York Times which suggested that "...The median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who entered the work force in 2006 to 2008...That is a decline of 10 percent, even before taking inflation into account." The numbers don't lie; even if you come from a very prestigious school with an immaculate academic resume and a quality four-year degree, it is doubtful that a fruitful economic work opportunity will land in your lap upon graduation, even under the best of conditions.
Dr. Fareed Zakaria, who is something of a journalistic hero of mine, came on as a guest to WBUR Boston's OnPoint radio program this month to argue the virtues of Liberal Arts education - of which there are many! In the introduction to his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Dr. Zakaria writes that college enrollment has been growing exponentially over the past decades (good!), but not across all college majors (which is not so good). As he points out, "...English and philosophy has declined sharply. In 1971, for example, 7.6 percent of all bachelor's degrees were awarded in English language and literature. By 2012, that number had fallen to 3.0 percent. During that same period, the percentage of business majors in the undergraduate population rose from 13.7 to 20.5...". You do not have to be Dr. Fareed Zakaria to understand why students are flocking to business and finance, but as he states in his book, "As you can see, we do not have an oversupply of students studying history, literature, philosophy, or physics and math for that matter. A majority is specializing in fields because they see them as directly related to the job market..." And there is the rub! I cannot tell you how much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth I have experienced as the result of being a professional with three Liberal Arts degrees and tens of thousands in student loan debt to pay. What should someone who is attracted to the Liberal Arts do? Should creative and liberally-minded authors and artists trade in for degrees in seemingly fruitful fields like accounting and engineering?
I recently read an article in The Atlantic (December 2014), entitled "Death of the Artist - and Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur", which gave a compressed history of art and its status evolutions from artisan trade to vessel of eternal truth and beauty and, more recently, its subsequent decline back to artisan commodity. The essence of the article is that in the "pre-art era", art was a functional commodity which was utilized as a craft. After this, the idea of art was a master status which imbued the best of creativity and skill to translate radiant truth. In this case, radiant truth was the territory of the Roman Catholic Church and its benefactors and a great deal of the commissioned art from the Enlightenment and Romantic periods was commissioned by those who wanted to reinforce artists as translators of the divine. And so it began...
There is a groundswell of support for us to change the discussion from "field specialization", as Dr. Zakaria sees it, toward a model that will really suit both the 21st century workforce and the people who have a propensity for creative thinking. This change in the climate of collegiate training is coming from the Career Services offices, not necessarily from the Liberal Arts colleges themselves. Andy Chan is the Vice President for Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. Mr. Chan gave a TED Talk in May of 2013 entitled, "Career Services Must Die." Mr. Chan suggests that the way we approach career services and career development in college must change - and I agree, as does Dr. Kelli Smith, Director of University Career Services at the Fleishman Center for Career and Professional Development at Binghamton University. Dr. Smith writes about Mr. Chan's TED talk and the subsequent changes coming for Career Services at the NACE blog. What Mr. Chan is eluding to and Dr. Smith is trumpeting is the Rethinking Success Movement, a Wake Forest University initiative that has become an emerging model for career placement at the college level.
There is some evidence to support the course that the Rethinking Success Movement is plotting. The traditional idea of Career Services at colleges and universities was to match students with promising job leads by working with industry partners in the local, regional, and national workforce. The problem with this traditional model is that the 21st century workforce is being changed and challenged by advances in technology and application, creating new job sectors and job opportunities which might not fit tidily into a single major. So what should academia and industry do to find new ways of meeting increasingly complex work and career problems? One suggestion comes from Mr. Chan, his colleagues and the Rethinking Success model. They posit that the answer to this problem comes in the form of vision or, more precisely, adding vision to the training that students are receiving as they progress academically. The Rethinking Success model from Wake Forest University suggests that "more schools are incorporating experiential learning and 'outside of the classroom' experiences to help students transition from an academic setting to real world application." Adding vision for students in Liberal Arts majors as they progress in their college career will enable them to better see how application matters in regard to what they are learning as much as the academic theory, style, structure, and other tenants that they receive in their classwork do. In the 2013 Rethinking Success conference report, Mr. Chan relates the stark environment facing Liberal Arts Career Placement professionals when he states, "Low job placement rates and ever-increasing tuition price tags opened the door for critics to portray liberal arts institutions as overpriced and under-delivering. In conjunction, some national leaders, especially those in politics, called for increased vocational education that would correlate directly to a line of work and the elimination of academic degrees that they declared worthless." That sounds pretty dire - and it would be, if there were no solutions. Fortunately for those of us in the Liberal Arts community, we are much more than fluffy BA degrees in a down market.
Another argument for making Liberal Arts degrees more marketable is to create Generalists, or people who have knowledge and applied training and experience in multiple fields of study. There is a lot of reason to believe that this will be a strong model moving forward, as well. One might think that recognizing the need for "generalists" in practice may come from the Liberal Arts' attempt to make themselves more valuable to perspective employers when, in fact, it came from the legal industry. In William Henderson's essay, Three Generations of U.S. Lawyers: Generalists, Specialists, Project Managers, Mr. Henderson tells of the history of "generalist" lawyers. What is interesting about his essay is that it is not written strictly for academic or historical context but rather in response to current economic conditions in the current job market, as he states,
"As this Essay is being written, the legal services industry is in the midst of a significant economic recession. In response to harsh economic conditions, the nation’s corporate clients have tightened their legal budgets and altered their spending habits. As a result, large law firms, who in recent years hired roughly twenty-five percent of all law school graduates, have dramatically cut the sizes of their incoming associate classes.Henderson touts the forward thinking of Paul Cravath of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, LLP in his development of junior lawyers in the early 20th century. According to Henderson, "One important part of the Cravath system was an incentive structure that rewarded lawyers for working together as a team for the benefit of clients". These generalist attorneys would share information, best practices, and experience for the benefit of the firm's clients and in turn strengthened the skill sets of the firm's attorneys. Cravath also felt that should these junior lawyers choose to leave the firm to start their own practice or work for someone else, they would have a well-rounded and "generalist" understanding and practice of law that would benefit the community as whole - all of which was a win/win.
"In turn, highly qualified law school graduates have expanded their job searches to markets and to employers that are normally reserved for the broad middle tier of law school graduates. As the downturn cascades through the entire entry-level market, a disturbingly large number of recent law school graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. Although many of us who are middle aged or older can remember prior economic recession."
This built-in flexibility does not apply only to the legal field; other professional fields are picking up the mantle of generalist thinking in other industries, as well. Bio-medicine and applied Biology would appear to be the gold standard of STEM training, which has recently become the hottest of academic career fields. However, even some professionals in Molecular Biology are calling for their students and practitioners to see beyond the microscope and look at how their training could benefit different fields of study and practice. According to a journal article written by Regis B. Kelly and Douglas Crawford for the National Institute of Health, there is also a need for generalists in their field if they intend to remain relevant. As they point out,
"Universities are without peer in their ability to discover the fundamental principles of science and are responsible for much innovation in our society. The creativity and nimbleness of their science is unfortunately not matched by equal creativity and nimbleness in administration and management. Although service innovation is now widely seen as contributing to economic growth and addressing societal needs as effectively as science innovation, universities in general continue to operate using time-honored, unchallenged principles. This must change. We need to evaluate how effectively we perform our public mission, and whether our exclusive focus on specialization precludes our usefulness."If Law and Bio-Medicine can see the benefit of expanding their roles to re-purpose their expertise for other work, why can't Liberal Arts? In part, the answer may be an unwillingness to change. For some academics and students, "slumming for paychecks" is beneath their highly valued ideals, but it need not be that way at all. Liz Coleman gave one of the most compelling and cogent TED Talk is regarding the ethereal and literal value of a Liberal Arts education in the 21st century. President Coleman had been at the helm of Bennington College for over 25 years and had seen many changes and developments in higher education by the time of her retirement at the end of 2012. However, it was not her past experience in higher education which was her focus but rather its future. She is one of the most sincere voices calling for Liberal Arts to shake its fear of inconsequential status and find its voice - here and now!
Fareed Zakaria, Andy Chan, and Liz Coleman are coming from different perspectives but are all facing the same way - toward the future. These leaders and many others are seeking to empower Liberal Arts majors and graduates to engage them in the process of creating their own futures. Vision and a cross-disciplinary approach are just two of the ideas being propagated to improve our students and, in the process, our society. If we fail as academic mentors, advisors, and instructors, we are doing a disservice to a generation of Liberal Arts students who have a great deal to offer the world about humanities, ethics, creativity, and ingenuity - and that is not the future we want.