Liberal arts education must embrace employability

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Covid-19 have buried the idea that learning for learning’s sake is enough, says Nancy Gleason

April 2, 2021
A robot holds a skull like Hamlet, symbolising humanities in the digital era
Source: iStock/nicoletaionescu

In 1753, when the educator William Smith conceived the modern world’s first liberal arts college, he envisioned a place where students would express themselves by “writing, speaking, acting, and living well”, and where knowledge itself fuelled “the business of life”. Smith’s ideal, which inspired the founding of Washington College in 1782, was not unlike that of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who argued that an “unexamined life is not worth living”.

For many liberal arts educators today, these foundational principles remain sacrosanct. Curricula are still centred on the Greek, Confucian and Avicennian concepts of “universal understanding”. Via the multidisciplinary study of social sciences, natural sciences, humanities and the arts, students are taught to embrace knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Job training and skills development are put off until later.

Many liberal arts professors actively cringe at the idea of linking education to the labour market for fear that it will somehow impinge on academic freedom and that industry will dictate curriculum. Unfortunately, however, this approach is outdated and does a disservice to the students we teach.

We are living in what has been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A combination of technologies is changing the way we live and interact, and work is increasingly being automated. A key feature of this era is the constant need for workplace upskilling and reskilling, as roles that previously required humans are taken over by computers or robots. In this context, how students learn today will inform how – or even whether – they learn tomorrow.

With the cost of tuition skyrocketing – and with the pandemic only accelerating automation as human labour has been locked down at home – the least liberal arts educators can do is ensure that they are preparing students for the types of cognitive skills that will be in demand.

To change course, liberal arts educators – to whose ranks I am proud to belong – must move swiftly to maintain the relevance of our diplomas and the merit of our systems. Four objectives should be prioritised.

First, liberal arts institutions should align their curricula and missions to address youth unemployment and job acquisition. This goes hand in hand with our efforts to widen the socio-economic backgrounds of the students we admit; most students will need to service debts and earn a living immediately upon graduation.

In the United Arab Emirates, where I work, universities have an obligation to ensure that they are contributing to the future economic development of their host cities. New York University Abu Dhabi is among the region’s leaders in placements, with 95 per cent of alumni working or attending graduate school one year after graduation. Liberal arts colleges need to put in the resources and staff to help make job placement after graduation a reality.

Second, faculty members should be encouraged to incorporate conversations about employability skills into their classes. According to the World Economic Forum, one of the top skills CEOs look for in new recruits is a proven ability to adapt and learn with minimal supervision. The liberal arts model emphasises these skills. What it doesn’t stress is talking about them. To ensure a liberal arts degree has value, students need a fuller understanding of the skills they are obtaining, and how these skills relate to the job market of today and tomorrow. A great example of where this is already being done is Oberlin College in Ohio, under the leadership of Carmen Twillie Ambar.

Third, undergraduates need more exposure to work preparedness. This should not be exclusively through internships, but embedded in class. It can be done by encouraging students to participate in work-integrated academic opportunities and by ensuring that career planning and job placements are embedded in the academic process.

Additionally, industry and business training can be prioritised, as can more deliberate alumni engagement and career counselling. One way to achieve these goals is to better incorporate career development into the academic experience – such as requiring students to take courses on résumé writing and job interviews, for example. But at many schools where this programming exists, it is only offered on an opt-in basis.

Finally, liberal arts institutions should further empower in-house pedagogy experts to help close the learning-employment divide. This is where centres for teaching and learning (CTLs) come in. As hubs of pedagogical innovation, CTLs are staffed to assist faculty in designing courses and teaching methods that encourage critical thinking, problem-solving and metacognition. Additionally, CTLs inspire “active learning” by promoting inclusive project-based and experiential study, teamwork and self-regulated research. While these skills are all essential for success in the future economy, liberal arts educators don’t always make this connection explicit.

These tensions are not new. Debates about what a “liberal education” is and what it should encompass are as old as the academic model itself. What’s different now, however, is the stark reality graduates are facing.

Education for education’s sake is a virtuous pursuit, and there is value in living an examined life. But those who caution against linking education to employability are clinging to an outdated idea that the Fourth Industrial Revolution upset, and Covid-19 has permanently buried. The vocational skill that graduates need is knowing how to learn. And the clearer liberal arts educators articulate this fact to themselves and their students, the more valuable a liberal arts degree will become.

Nancy W. Gleason is an associate professor of practice of political science, and director of the Hilary Ballon Center for Teaching and Learning at New York University Abu Dhabi. She is the editor of Higher Education in the Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan). She is speaking at THE’s MENA Universities Summit, held in partnership with NYU Abu Dhabi on 6-8 April. To register, click here.

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