Two presidents weigh in on the value of liberal arts
Questions about the value of the liberal arts are on the minds of many college students and their families — as well as anyone who is concerned about education and the workforce. As a new school year is starting, it is good time to revisit the meaning and impact of a liberal arts education. And who better to address the topic than two college presidents: William Craft at Concordia College and Mary Hinton at College of Saint Benedict.
President Mary Hinton
College of Saint Benedict
Nearly 35 years ago, one of my presidential predecessors at the College of Saint Benedict, Sr. Emmanuel Renner, said that a liberal arts education is about educating holistically, and that the pursuit of truth and wisdom demands attention to the integration of one’s intellectual, creative, emotional, and spiritual development. I've thought of these comments on many occasions and remain struck by the relevance of her comments today.
To listen to the current public narrative, many would assume that the liberal arts are no longer relevant. Every day I read an article or hear a news story questioning their value, each purporting that we don’t need to attend to the integrated whole of the human being. However, I believe that in a world of rapid change, tremendous access to information, and the need for a civil and civically active community, the liberal arts are more relevant than ever.
Many purport that specialized job training should be the primary focus of higher education. Yet I refuse to ascribe to the notion that a rigorous liberal arts education and excellent job preparation are mutually exclusive. In fact, I would choose a nurse, financial advisor, or teacher who has a liberal arts background first because I know that they can think critically, that they can connect multiple and at times discordant ideas into a whole, and that they are more likely to understand and appreciate diverse perspectives. Liberal arts institutions ensure students hone these skills, while preparing them for successful professional lives.
Further, it is estimated that today's young adults will change jobs 15-20 times over the course of their working lives. To suggest that any specialized training received today will prepare students for a long and varied career trajectory is likely false. By preparing young adults to think creatively and critically, to have strong communication skills, to be good at problem solving and to be able to engage and work with a global community, a liberal arts education provides a foundation that will enable them to quickly develop needed and timely specialized skills over the course of their professional lives.
Finally, as our need for civil discourse grows in our nation, and as we face complex and global problems that will demand complicated and thoughtful solutions, the liberal arts equip young people to approach, understand, and collaboratively resolve these issues. The liberal arts prepare young adults for a lifetime of leadership, and give them the capacity to uplift and transform entire communities.
It is the integration of these many components, as Sr. Emmanuel said over three decades ago, that gives powerful and permanent relevance to the liberal arts. Broad academic preparation, including professional preparation, integrated with the essential skills to work in multiple and diverse environments, combined with a global perspective, and a commitment to civic engagement, are the essential skills we need in our communities today and into the future.
President William J. Craft
While some in the national spotlight have made a sport of devaluing the liberal arts — especially the humanities, the arts, and the human sciences — the data tell a different story. The record shows that college grads who have majored in the fine arts, the humanities, and the human sciences do well.
A study by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Association of American Colleges and Universities — based on U.S. Census data — reveals that while students with majors in arts and humanities usually make less initially than those from programs directly linked to one profession, by the time they reach their peak earning years, they have on average surpassed them. In fact, students who graduated with such majors are more likely to get advanced degrees, for which their average earning bump is nearly $20,000 per year. The point is not to choose art instead of accounting — or vice versa. No. We need talented graduates from all fields – the traditional arts and sciences and the pre-professional programs. Fear of poor earnings should not drive any aspiring learner away from any of them.
But there is another problem here, and one that worries me as a college president: the assumption that the major is destiny. For some students, a major can lead straight to a job. But for most, the major serves chiefly to develop discipline — the capacity to look hard at a set of problems and persist in trying to solve them. And for students in all majors, it is the whole of their college learning that matters most. Across the arc of college, they learn the skills of inquiry, discovery, communication, and the capacity to address the muddy, unscripted challenges of real life. And from there they find themselves with not one but many possible paths to jobs, earnings, and the security they bring.
What is more, students at a liberal arts college like Concordia — no matter what their major — grow to see themselves not only as future earners, but also as citizens, with the chance to make their home and city, their country, and their world a place where all may thrive. Thank goodness for that, and thank goodness that we live in a nation where we prize that chance — even if our leaders sometimes forget it.
By the way, here, to pick one example, is what art history majors from Concordia College are doing for a living: they are bankers, artists, professors, pastors, therapists, educational fundraisers, sales reps, graphic designers, construction company owners, on and on. They are citizens who together with their neighbors — those who work in factories, on farms, on building sites, in court rooms and classrooms, in laboratories and studios — strive to fulfill the American dream of strength, of beauty, of a full human life.