In defense of the Liberal Arts

Dr. Paul Hanstedt

Dr. Paul Hanstedt

English professor Paul Hanstedt examines the merits of a liberal arts education.

This article was featured in the Roanoke Magazine, Issue 2, 2013. The full issue can be seen here.

Try this the next few times you're on a plane:  Turn to the person beside you and ask what he or she does for a living.

The answers will come:  "I'm an orthopedic surgeon."  "I'm a financial adviser."  "I'm a social worker."  "I teach high school."

Then ask a follow-up question:  "And what did you study in college?"

I'm not a mathematician or a gambling man, but I'm willing to bet that, at least half the time, the two answers won't be the same.

Or try this the next time you're at a dinner party:  go around the table and ask everyone whether or not their job has evolved in the last five years. Are the tasks they perform the same as they used to be?  Do they do these tasks in the same way, using the same tools?   Are the skills they're required to apply the same as they were a few years back, a decade ago?
Here again, I'm willing wager that more often than not the answer is going to be "No."

Because people change: they discover that being an architect, or a teacher, or a pharmaceutical chemist isn't exactly what they thought it would be. They learn that, sometimes, getting up on a rainy Monday morning to go to a job that you hate just isn't worth it, no matter how much you're paid.
And the world changes: How a journalist gathers and reports the news now is very different from how a journalist gathered and reported the news 10 years ago. A good number of the hot jobs in 2013 didn't even exist in 2003. And the challenges we face in the workplace, in the boardroom, on the street, in our conversations with buyers in another hemisphere - these change too, and very quickly.
Given all of this, it's surprising how much we oversimplify the conversations we have about education and how it should work, reducing everything to a simple X = X formula:  if I study accounting, I will be an accountant. If I study biology, I will be a biologist. If I study history, I will become a historian. As a result of this simplification, we make some pretty peculiar decisions. I can't tell you the number of times I've spoken with advisees who are struggling in their major courses, throwing all their effort into their studies and still coming up with C's and D's.
"Do you like your major?" I'll ask.
"Well," they'll say, hesitating as though keeping a horrible secret. Then they'll blurt, "Not really."

"Why study it, then?"

Because, they'll tell me, the economy is tough and jobs are hard to come by, and their parents have encouraged them to pick a major where there's a clear path to a stable profession - where, in other words, X = X.
This way of viewing the world has even crept into political and budgetary decisions at the state level. Wisconsin and Florida are considering adjusting university tuition rates to reward students who choose what legislators see as "job-friendly" majors. According to a December 2012 New York Times article, students who choose to study engineering, science, health care and technology (fields that are perceived as "in demand") would pay lower tuition than those who major in English, history, philosophy, or anthropology.

The irony here is that research consistently shows that employers aren't really looking for applicants with an X = X background.  A study commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that by almost 3-to-1, employers tend to favor candidates with in-depth knowledge in a field and a broad range of skills over those with just knowledge in a single field.  Additionally, potential employers recognize that the employees they hire today will be required to use a broader set of skills and work with a broader range of departments than they have in the past.
Not surprisingly, then, the people who will hire our students after they graduate encourage us to teach them a broader range of skills that allow them to adapt to new and rapidly changing situations. More emphasis, they say, should be placed on critical thinking and analytical skills, on the ability to analyze and solve complex problems, on the ability to connect choices and actions to ethical decisions, on the ability to communicate effectively in a variety of settings, on teamwork with others from a diversity of backgrounds. That, according to the findings of "Raising the Bar:  Employers Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn," a survey of 302 employers conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Hart Research Associates in 2009.

The good news?  Roanoke College is ahead of the game. Our new Intellectual Inquiry general education curriculum (INQ, for short) has been deliberately designed to provide students with the broad range of skills - critical thinking, ethical reasoning, quantitative problem solving, written and oral communications - that students will need when they go into the workplace. What's more, the curriculum is designed to have students think about how the wide variety of courses they take connect to one another - how a course on Statistics and Social Justice might relate to a major in political science or sociology, what a course on artistic and literary responses to science and technology might add to the work of a physicist.

The goal here is to produce students who are comfortable moving from one field to another, from one set of challenges to another. We want to educate employees and citizens who can look at a situation they've never encountered before and draw from their past experiences to find an answer, even if that means drawing from and adapting a completely different methodology.
In many ways, this is what Roanoke College has always done. After all, we're the college that educated Shaun McConnon '66, who studied biology and is now CEO of a company that focuses on computer security technology. We're the college that helped to create Scott Segerstrom '02, an English major who is now the associate director of the Colorado Youth Corps Association, and whose job requires him to shake hands with state legislators one day and cut fire-breaks in the mountains the next. We're the college that required Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo '78, a secondary education major, to take a course in art history. As a result, her life took a 90-degree turn and she was hired out of college as a gallery assistant in New York. She now serves on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art and is a well-known advocate for the arts.
Put another way, in a world that's constantly changing, in the midst of an economic downturn that's causing a lot of colleges and universities to make radical, sometimes desperate choices - cutting "impractical" majors and reducing general education requirements to "streamline" learning - Roanoke College is staying the course. We are continuing to do what we've always done so well: prepare graduates from every field to follow the winding, constantly changing paths their lives - and the world - will lay before them. 

Dr. Paul Hanstedt is professor of English at Roanoke College. During his tenure there as director of general education (2003-2008), he led his campus in a successful curricular revision that resulted in a theme-based general education program featuring writing, quantitative reasoning, and oral communications across the curriculum. The co-recipient of a half-million-dollar grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education for sustainable faculty development, Hanstedt also received a Fulbright to spend a year in Hong Kong as part of a team supporting the universities there as they designed and implemented general education programs. In addition to his work in curricular, course and faculty development, he is an active writer of fiction and nonfiction, recently publishing "Hong Konged," a memoir of his year in Asia with his three children under the age of 10. In February 2013, Hanstedt received the Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Released: November 21, 2013