Critical thinkers honed in the liberal arts are in sharp demand

The 21st-century labour market will increasingly want well-rounded freethinkers – the very thing that courses such as Western civilisation develop, says Daniel Hutto

February 13, 2019
Ancient Roman painting

In a recent blog post on Times Higher Education, Tom Worthington asked, “Can a degree in Western civilisation prepare students for jobs for 21st-century jobs?” He suggests that students would be better off taking a course in digital technologies. Worthington has not actually seen the curriculum for our course, and it is not difficult to read his article as a broadside against the relevance of the humanities.

We at the University of Wollongong have just made public the curriculum for our bachelor of arts in Western civilisation. Our course will take students on a chronologically ordered adventure through the great periods and epochs of intellectual and artistic change in the West. The great works to be examined include not only those from the literary and philosophical canon, but also, for example, religious and scientific texts.

Students will cultivate open, critical minds along the way. A major ambition of the degree is to instil a spirit of uninhibited enquiry in all our students and to equip them to reason about and evaluate possible answers to some of the most difficult and abiding questions. In each of their subjects, they will learn how to think, not what to think.

Students will also be taught how they should conduct themselves in open-minded, well-reasoned and civil conversation with others in their efforts to rationally address the questions raised by the great works that they will critically examine together. Not only will this degree cultivate these social virtues, it will crucially enable students to become intelligent, sensitive readers of not just the great works but also the stories of others. In an era awash with “fake news”, we believe that such skills are more vital than ever.

Right from the course’s start, students will be introduced to non-Western and under-represented voices. They will consider examples of how the ideas, artworks and practices of non-Western cultures and civilisations have influenced and might overlap with those of their Western counterparts. Despite its focus on Western thought, our version of the BA in Western civilisation initiates well-placed, high-quality conversations with non-Western traditions throughout.

All in all, the degree aims to provide a balanced and forward-looking, new-style liberal arts programme – one fit for the needs of a multicultural 21st century. Graduates will be well-rounded freethinkers. They will be erudite and articulate, creative and critical. They will appreciate and value virtuous, civil and productive conversation.

What are the employment prospects for such graduates? Pace Worthington, in a word: excellent. There is a demonstrated demand in Australia and globally for graduates who can think critically and creatively and possess excellent social skills.

A 2016 report, The New Basics – Foundation for Young Australians, reveals that demand for critical thinking skills in new graduates has risen by 158 per cent in recent years. This finding is based on an analysis of 4.2 million online job postings from 6,000 sources. Graduates of Wollongong’s BA will be future-proofed, as compared with those preparing for many traditional vocations.

Additionally, in 2017, Deloitte Australia analysed the needs of the Australian workforce and businesses. It reported findings that highlight a serious market gap in non-technical soft skills. Deloitte “forecasts that soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030, compared to half of all jobs in 2000”. Its analysis reveals a clear and growing demand for sharp graduates who are good at communication, teamwork, problem-solving, emotional intelligence and ethical decision-making. Soft skills and talents of these kinds – precisely those that a liberal arts education instils – comprise “ten of the sixteen ‘crucial proficiencies in the 21st century’ identified by the World Economic Forum”.

Crucially, the degree stands out as being philosophical through and through. There is evidence that high-achieving philosophy graduates have good prospects for rewarding mid-career earnings. For example, median earnings of BA graduates majoring in philosophy “exceed those of majors in any other humanities field, and are the 16th highest in a study comparing salaries across 50 majors in the United States”, according to data collected by PayScale.

In sum, as Jay Garfield, a curriculum consultant for the degree, emphasises: “Liberal arts curricula are prized as the best possible preparation of students for citizenship and for a range of employment opportunities. They are properly regarded as better than the vocationally oriented training so often urged by those who neither understand the proper role of a university or the prerequisites of a career.”

This echoes the assessment of another curriculum consultant, Mari Hatavara: “A profound understanding of the diversity and depth of civilization will provide your graduates a competitive edge in today’s world, where culture as values and practices penetrates any societal, technological or economical endeavor.” We at Wollongong heartedly agree.

Daniel D. Hutto is senior professor of philosophical psychology and head of the School of Liberal Arts at the University of Wollongong.

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Reader's comments (1)

Could be said about a lot of degrees and study programs offered by universities. Goes back to a Universities mandate, is it training for employment, e.g. if there are no private employment opportunities outside of academia the program should be cancelled. What is the purpose of Academia or what is the mandate of universities in general.