Careers and the liberal arts

As you know we believe that successful careers going forward are going to look far more like rock climbing than ladder climbing. The notion of career ladders––known linear steps up––is increasingly out of date in a world where globalization and technology make jobs and occupations less secure. Add to that, as Daniel Pink explores in his must-read book A Whole New Mind, that left brain skills are the easiest to automate and outsource you get a strong case that the liberal arts are more important than ever.

Which, of course, is the exact opposite of conventional wisdom. Adults––business leaders, policy makers and parents––keep pushing our kids away from the liberal arts and towards job specific training in things like STEM and business administration. Big mistake for our kids and the economy!

In a terrific Washington Post column entitled Why the tech world highly values a liberal arts degree Cecilia Gaposchkin (associate professor of medieval history at Dartmouth College and assistant dean of faculty for pre-major advising) lays out the value of the liberal arts for all. No matter what career you are preparing yourself for today. I highly recommend you take a few minutes and read her post.

She writes:

Skills. Breadth. Critical thinking. And the ability, like Abelard (12th Century philosopher), to push forward, beyond received wisdom and practice and to create a new world. This is still the aim. Rhetoric has given way to English Literature. Arithmetic is now Math. Music is now mostly what we would call Physics. Modern liberal education still trains the basic intellectual skills of query and discernment that Abelard aimed for, generally now through general education and major requirements. Once mastered – just as in the Middle Ages – these skills can be applied to specialized training – medical school, the public sphere, business, whatever – what the Middle Ages regarded as the practical arts.

But I think those of us who teach, advise, and administrate in these schools routinely fail in explaining to our students just what liberal arts are — and why they matter. I don’t mean the historical explanation based on Abelard. I mean an explanation that seeks to show how and why learning to think critically, to reason, to push the boundaries of received knowledge is the value that they should seek to gain from their college education. Economic value, career value, and social value. Great and successful careers rarely end up having much connection to majors. They do to intelligence, leadership, innovation, creativity, aptitude in assessing uncertainty, ability. Not surprisingly, the corporate representatives I have interviewed to gain insight about why they recruit from Dartmouth routinely echo Abelard in what they are looking for: critical thinking, an ability to deal with ambiguity, to reach conclusions based on considered mastery of research and context, and so forth. (Emphasis added.)

New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about the same topic in a column entitled The New Romantics in the Computer Age. He writes:

… You shouldn’t even ask, What jobs can I do that computers can’t do? That’s because they are getting good at so many disparate things. You should instead ask, What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?

Those tasks are mostly relational. Being in a position of authority or accountability. Being a caregiver. Being part of a team. Transactional jobs are declining but relational jobs are expanding.

Empathy becomes a more important workplace skill, the ability to sense what another human being is feeling or thinking. Diabetes patients of doctors who scored high on empathy tests do better than patients with low-empathy doctors.

The ability to function in a group also becomes more important — to know how to tell stories that convey the important points, how to mix people together.

These are the kind of skills that are built best getting an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts on college campuses. Not online and certainly not in STEM focused programs or skilled trades training.

All three of which are being pushed by far too many business, political and media leaders as the direction higher education should move in. Although many who are pushing for online higher education and job focused higher education don’t take their own advice when it comes to their kids and grand-kids. Who in large numbers are enrolled in college prep, liberal arts focused k-12 schools in addition to colleges. That education is good for all kids, not just their kids.


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