Explaining the Value of the Liberal Arts

What is the role of the liberal arts in a college education, and how can colleges best explain that vision to students and parents?

That’s the question we tackled in an online forum we held last week—part of our monthly EdSurge Live discussion series.

We were joined by Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities. She has been thinking and talking about this issue of the value of the liberal arts lately, and she is a former president of a liberal arts college herself, having led Mount Holyoke College. And Pasquerella was a longtime professor of philosophy before that.

Listen to highlights of the conversation below, or read a transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity.

EdSurge: Even as recently as 10 years ago, colleges didn’t really feel under pressure to explain the value of the liberal arts. How would you describe, in a nutshell, the societal landscape and how it’s changed in the last few years around higher ed?

Lynn Pasquerella: There’s certainly a prevailing national rhetoric that’s calling into question the value of higher education in general and liberal education in particular. We’ve seen this shift away from the notion of higher education as a public good to viewing it as a private commodity. And when we see legislators who are calling into question the expense of college—the claims that it’s too expensive, too difficult to access and doesn’t teach people 21st-century skills—that reinforces the concerns of the public in general; [that leads to] an erosion of trust in higher education.

Should colleges have been more proactive sooner to communicate their value?

I definitely think that there should have been communication earlier on. There has in the past been this inextricable link between higher education and the American dream—the assumption that you can live a life better than your parents if you have an education. But [lately] there’s been a decoupling of higher education from the American dream. It has a significant impact, because it places at risk those who are already the most marginalized and underserved members of society.

Our nation’s historic mission was one of educating for democracy, and we now have an increasing economic—and therefore, racial—segregation in higher education and in our society that is creating what Thomas Jefferson referred to as an “unnatural aristocracy,” where only the richest and most privileged have access to the types of institutions that will allow them to gain economic advancement.

When college costs so much, what would you say to a family at a college night at a high school as far as explaining why the liberal arts is necessary? Why is Shakespeare, say, something that they need to focus on when they’re focused on making sure college pays off?

Yes. When we look at the jobs of the future, they haven’t yet been invented. We’re at a time of such rapid technological change that there’s bound to be rapid obsolescence. Narrow technical training isn’t going to serve your children well in the future. What will help is for them to have an education that teaches them to write and speak, and think with precision, coherence and clarity, to anticipate and respond to objections, propose arguments and to be able to engage in a moral imagination. Imagining what it’s like to be in the shoes of another, different from one’s self.

Our recent employer survey showed that the majority of employers—we surveyed 500 CEOs and 500 hiring managers—they believe in the value of the liberal education. They don’t care what a student’s major is, what they care about is the capacity of those students to communicate effectively, to work in diverse teams and to be able to be adaptable and flexible in the face of rapid change. These are the skills that a liberal education offers, and that’s why we need to focus on that. You can get an excellent liberal education at any type of institution.

I began my own college career in a small rural community college and it provided me with a foundation to gain a four-year degree and then go on and get my PhD. That didn’t cost much. I went to school under set of funds: the comprehensive Employment and Training Act, Pell Grants, Perkins Loans. There are ways to get an education, but it’s taking that first step and believing that it truly is transformative.

I have seen some concern by some people that somehow the rhetoric might be too focused now around jobs skills, and that even like the survey you’ve done of employers, that there’s a danger in it kind of coming around to the only value of college really being about money. That is something I’ve heard faculty get concerned about, with even how the case is being made, if you will. What advice do you have for navigating that rhetorical case? Otherwise, it’s easy to see it just being just about money and about jobs, only about economic interest.

It is. I wouldn’t reduce the value of a liberal education to employability. I think that’s one of the challenges we have in our society today when we’re talking about the only value of higher education and in terms of the capacity to get a job. I think knowledge is intrinsically valuable, but I don’t know anybody who can afford not to have a job. We need to be realistic with respect to why parents are concerned that their investment will not pay off in the long run.

Part of it is that they want their children to have good lives, and for students today, that often means being able to contribute, to find meaning and purpose through service to others. You can’t do that unless you have a job of some sort. We need to prepare them for a purposeful engagement in the world, which was our mission at Mount Holyoke College.

[Audience question] What examples you see of colleges or universities integrating professional education and liberal education well, and what are they doing to integrate those two things?

There’s been a false dichotomy between pre-professional, vocational and liberal education. Institutions like Worcester Polytech do an amazing job of bringing those together. Their students are asked to engage in internships. They have first-year seminars, and integrative learning throughout their curriculum where they’re not only learning across disciplines, but engaging with community members.

I went to one of their showcases that they have for student capstone projects. There were a group of students who were talking about soil erosion in a particular part of coastal region in Massachusetts. They had all of this data and the presentation was wonderful, but they said when they went into the communities, the communities weren’t buying climate change and soil erosion, because they thought that this was a plot by the government to get their land. They had to work with the communities to convince them. It didn’t matter how many statistics they provided, [unless] they were trustworthy enough and [could] speak across differences.

Those skills, the humanistic skills that are important when we’re dealing with diverse populations and then taking advantage of local epistemologies, what did those residents know that could inform the work that they were doing? I think WPI is a great example and another example is Rutgers Newark, Nancy Cantor is the [chancellor] there. They do a good deal of curriculum-to-career work, but also community engagement in ways that really helps to ensure that the liberal education is taking place within the context of the workforce, not apart from it.

[Audience question] I’m Kristi Johns. I am actually a doctoral student. I’m a visiting scholar at Kellogg business school at Northwestern, and just kind of bringing in a student perspective from this and maybe a research perspective. I study this intersection between technology, storytelling and social capital or students who are kind of pushed on the margins of higher ed. From my own experience, I come from a working-class background. I’m a mother of two. In order to be a student, my family is on food stamps and it’s not really a safe space to be in. There’s a lot of people who are on the margins such myself who aren’t really in the spaces to share what that actual experience is like, and mine is not even representative of so many other students’. I’m curious where you see the role of liberal arts education with students such as myself or other students in those situations that it’s not accessible in many ways, not necessarily in being able to enter those spaces, but to be sustained in those spaces?

Thank you for the question, it’s so critical. We believe, as I’ve said a few times, that there’s an inextricable link between a liberal education and the equity imperative at the heart of our mission. There’s been some important work as I’m sure you know by Sara Goldrick-Rab on food and security, shelter and security among American college students today with three-quarters of the students reporting food insecurity, 50 percent was shelter insecurity, 14 percent report being homeless.

Scholars like Cia Verschelden have added to the literature by showing the ways in which cognitive bandwidth is reduced when students are having to worry about where the next meal is going to come from, if they’re going to be beaten to death, because they’re living in their car, how are they going to care for their children and go to class when there’s no day care?

There are a number of institutions like the University of South Florida that are establishing not only food pantries but shelters and have day care provisions. This is what we need to focus on in educating the whole student. We need to focus on student wellbeing, not just disseminating knowledge, but educating the person to thrive, to succeed, to be the next generation of leaders requires addressing all of the psychosocial needs in addition to providing you with the content.

Kristi Johns [audience question]: Should they be able to provide free childcare for students? And is that something that should be an absolutely an obligation—and does that vary at which institutions?

It should be an absolute obligation. Institutions of all types across the country need to demonstrate that they are serving as anchor institutions. That their success cannot be separated from the success of the communities. That they serve and they need to look at the circumstances of the lives of those that they serve. And so we need to provide child care. We need to provide courses at times when people can take them who are working full time. We need to provide access to excellence in higher education for all students. Otherwise, we are bound to thwart our goals of democracy by perpetuating this growing economic segregation.