Liberal arts as an asset

Readers of this blog know that we believe that a broad education is the key to building the skills needed for successful/prosperous forty year careers. Largely because globalization and technology are constantly making obsolete––in unpredictable ways––jobs, occupations and industries.

So successful people will be those who are able to constantly adjust to changes in labor markets. We use the analogy of rock climbers, rather than ladder climbers. Job ladders, the way we have thought of careers, are increasingly toast.

These same broad skills are needed most by today’s and tomorrow’s employers. It is the basis for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills which we have explored previously. They summarize those skills with their Four Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Fareed Zakaria wrote a must-read column for the Washington Post on the topic entitled “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous”. Its an excerpt from his new book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education”. He writes:

If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today’s world.

… This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Exactly! Turing education––particularly high school and higher education––into vocation education focused on developing job specific skills is the wrong path to economic success for each of us as individuals and for the country. Even worse is government picking which occupations/degrees higher education should offer.

The right direction is to broaden education beyond content specific and job specific skills to focus on broad skills like the Four Cs. Those are the skills that matter most to economic success today and tomorrow.

(For those who are interested in more on the importance of the liberal arts check out my 2014 commencement address for Alma College which can be found here. And a terrific Inside Higher Ed article entitled “Obama and Walker: Both Wrong”.)

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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