Liberal arts degrees must change to meet industry needs

Liberal arts programmes should be revamped and rebranded to emphasise the competencies they provide graduates entering the workplace, says Costas Spirou

December 30, 2022
headless statue illustrating op-ed about defending study of Classics
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Almost 80 years ago The Atlantic published an essay by the Harvard professor E. K. Rand bemoaning what he saw as the dilution of liberal arts programmes.

His June 1943 piece titled “Bring back the liberal arts” may seem familiar to present readers. Rand claimed that colleges and universities were re-evaluating their curricula of study and “into the gap rushed easier and broader subjects, supposed to be more immediately related [on] success in the struggle for existence”.

About 70 years later, after decades of back and forth on similar themes, Sanford J. Ungar, then president of Goucher College, addressed a new set of concerns in a 2010 article titled “7 major misperceptions about the liberal arts”. He wrote about the perceived unwillingness of liberal arts to focus on career preparation during a period of recession, the delivery of irrelevant majors disconnected from industry needs, and their reputation for serving children of wealthy families with ample time and resources to pursue esoteric subjects and debate big thoughts.

These criticisms will surely continue as long as liberal arts courses persist – and they are often persuasive. To combat them, academic administrators, faculty, students and even alumni can present concrete examples of how these academic experiences helped shape their career achievements. For example, successful entrepreneurs and CEOs of some of the largest Fortune 500 companies such as Starbucks, Disney, Hewlett-Packard and Alibaba completed their degrees in the liberal arts.

It is not enough, however. Liberal arts education continues to lose ground in the eyes of the public as the media and parents lament the increasing cost of higher education and the need for return on investment and high-paying jobs following graduation.

To reverse this trend, higher education must go beyond the strategy of defending the power and value of a liberal arts education. This approach simply has not worked. Rather, we must look within the enterprise itself and expand its role, including a recognition of the unique contributions that liberal arts education can make in professional programmes to further career preparation across all fields of study.

When it comes to labour relevance, the liberal arts are caught in a debate between soft and hard skills. Hard skills relate to specialised tasks and technical or experiential knowledge. Training in industry-specific software, blockchain, analytics, artificial intelligence, video production and affiliate marketing are considered some of the most desirable skills in this category. Because of unfolding demands and new markets, hard skills tend to have great variation and are highly regarded. After all, they are subject to new discoveries and distinct market demands.

Soft skills, on the other hand, are the engine that powers the execution of hard skills. Some of the most desirable soft skills include resilience, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and adaptability. The liberal arts prepare students to meet current and future labour needs by positioning individuals to succeed in jobs that do not yet exist.

Here are four steps that can help guide an internal reorientation and, in the process, reinforce the importance of the liberal arts.

  1. Rethink the culture of academic separation In an environment dominated by disciplinary isolation, academic egos and perceived hierarchies, encouraging college deans, department chairs and faculty to interact and explore each other’s distinct contributions to student development is essential. For example, a digital humanities initiative can empower faculty from music, art, theatre, English, history and modern languages to discuss how their work can be reframed through a different lens. Ultimately, bringing colleagues together to outline common competencies across academic areas would underscore the importance of disciplinary connectedness and allow opportunities for cross-curricular courses.
  2. Integrate experiential learning These are opportunities for students, and research has shown that they can contribute greatly to retention, graduation, individual growth and overall satisfaction with the college experience. More institutional support for undergraduate research and community-based engaged learning is needed.
  3. Identify and incorporate innovation In many cases, the majority of teaching is dominated by lectures since faculty model their approaches on what they experienced during their studies at institutions where the emphasis is placed on research. Liberal arts education can excel when engaging students by using a variety of teaching methods, including clustering, design thinking, active learning, gamification, team teaching, interactive technologies and flipped classrooms.
  4. Embrace the language of possibility The term “liberal” is often confused with debates surrounding conflicting political ideologies and “arts” conveys a recreational activity with very limited employment opportunities. As a result, there is a need to rethink the language and consider other ways to describe the collective impact of the disciplines. “Universal competencies”, “scholastic competencies” or “enduring competencies” may be terms that more accurately convey the significant contributions of this education, not only on career preparation but also in what it means to be human.


I wholeheartedly agree with E. K. Rand who posited: “I am no foe of specialization – in its place; it is the life of science and progress.” However, 80 years later, the liberal arts are more threatened than ever before, and university leaders must look internally to create a culture of collaboration and programmatic inclusion that goes beyond complementarity.

Instead, the liberal arts must play a primary role in furthering professional education to prepare students to solve the problems of the future and in the process preserve our democratic institutions.

Costas Spirou is provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Georgia College & State University and editor of the Johns Hopkins University Press Higher Education and the City book series.

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Reader's comments (1)

Why has no one cite Rand in more than 75 yrs? The answer is simple: he had absolutely nothing specific to contribute. The author fails to note that Rank also wrote during WWII. Rand? Goucher College? What about the shelves and shelves of writing about higher education, "liberal arts" (does he mean arts & sciences; or arts & humanities). Or about interdisciplinarity from Jacobs, In Defense of Disciplines, to Graff, Undisciplining Knowledge. I fail to use any point here. Including "labour" or "specialization" It matters even if Georgia doesn't know it