Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Liberal Arts Education

A Department of Labor report projects that 80 percent of the children beginning kindergarten will eventually enter jobs that don’t even exist today! This startling projection has the ring of truth when we consider all the changes that have taken place in the workplace over the past 10-15 years: e-mail and voice mail becoming essential work tools; the pervasive use of the Internet to complete business transactions ranging from advertising and shopping to banking; instantaneous Web-based access to information on almost any subject; and more.

If work continues to change as radically as it has in the recent past, then how do we prepare today’s students to enter the workforce and become productive citizens? For one thing, we are witnessing radical changes in the entry-level skills required for jobs as they evolve toward higher-level skills, especially the skills of analytical thinking, problem solving, communication, computation, and working in teams.

To be successful in the workplace of the future, individuals will need more than technical training; the essential core of education, what we often refer to as liberal arts education, will remain the most practical preparation for lifelong employment because it promotes intellectual and personal growth and equips the individual to cope with change by being able to adapt to the workplace as it continues to transform.

But the term “liberal arts education” has at best a fuzzy meaning for many people. For some, it means all those required classes that stand in the way of technical training, which some people feel is the only way to prepare for a job. But, upon closer inspection, the liberal arts can be understood as the key to survival in any field that is subject to change over time. The standard definition of liberal arts education implies a program of study designed to foster capacities of analysis, critical reflection, problem solving, communication, computation and synthesis of knowledge from different disciplines. Its goal is to provide students with an intellectual, historical, and social context for recognizing the continuity between the past and future and for drawing on the human capacity of reason to understand human experience, to question the values dimension of human enterprise, and to articulate the results of this process of thinking.

These are job skills, and any employer would be hard pressed to turn away a person who possesses them. However, this definition doesn’t fully capture the rich texture of this brand of education. First of all, liberal arts education puts the individual into the presence of the greatest ideas, most transforming concepts, and most powerful works of the imagination that human beings have produced. This is not important because it’s useful for making cocktail party conversation; it is requisite as an intellectual framework with which to understand and evaluate human events and interactions.

Second, liberal arts education is empowering; it provides rehearsal for life in the imagination; it liberates us from the limitations of our own experience and opinions by proffering alternative views, scenarios, and explanations. It helps us to appreciate the fact that neither the easiest nor the most complex solution is necessarily the correct one. We learn to think, marshal evidence, and weigh the relative merits of different factors before committing to a plan of action.
Third, liberal arts education imparts a set of values that are necessary in order for human beings to live together in harmony. Society functions only as well as it produces good citizens, and the concept of good citizenship is embodied by individuals who understand and take their responsibilities seriously, who vote, who actively work for the betterment of society, especially by giving service to others. Civic responsibility is a cornerstone of liberal arts education.

Helping individuals to work together despite their differences, a liberal arts education embraces concepts of diversity and multiculturalism, which result in values and competencies needed so desperately in a pluralistic society like that of the U.S. It also prepares the individual to recognize the interdependency of all of our global partners and to appreciate the differences and similarities among world cultures. These are practical skills when viewed from the perspective of workplace diversity and the increasing emphasis on international business and trade.

Yes, technical skills might give one the “foot in the door” in terms of entry into the workforce, but a liberal arts education will provide the staying power, serve as a foundation for continuous growth and development, and lead to the professional success that we set our sights on. Viewed in this context, liberal arts education remains the most practical brand of education. Nothing else will equip us with the knowledge base, skills, habits of mind and values to function effectively and productively in the unknown world of the new century.

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