Rethinking Liberal Arts Education for the Twenty-First Century

Special Focus : Learning to Live and Work Together
Access and Inclusion September 25, 2017

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the world was full of confidence about the inevitability of growing forms and processes of globalization—instantaneous communication, flattened economy, massive movement of people—and the resulting need for new forms of education. Intellectual and business leaders talked about how the world as we had known it in the twentieth century—the world of industrialization and specialized knowledge, the world in which nation-states reigned supreme—was not the world that the young people would operate in the twenty-first century. Teachers enthused how they wanted their students to be comfortable in any situation they found themselves in, regardless of where they lived or worked. Many of us, committed to developing skills for an inter-dependent, inter-connected world, argued that developing respect for diverse points of view, empathy for people different from ourselves, and an ability to engage the world with a sense of reflection were necessary tools for the new world in the new millennium. 

In this context, it was evident that such skills would come from the training in liberal arts. It is one thing to know how to code and develop a new electronic app, it is another thing to ask about the ethical dilemmas that may emerge from such new media tools. Clearly, the ability to communicate cogently, to understand subtleties of human interaction, or to identify important social developments from a plethora of data is all in the domain of arts and humanities.
Now, as we approach the third decade of the new century, some of the euphoria about the globalizing world has dampened considerably. The rise of ultranationalist movements in many parts of the world, retrenchment from regional and global arrangements by major powers, and the strong resistance to accommodate large new populations in one’s country, have all put significant dent in the euphoric global conversation. Increasing economic insecurity in the developed world and the need for creating millions of new jobs in the developing world has given rise to privileging skills-based learning: educating students to get jobs. 
The reality is that no matter how vociferous the anti-globalization voices, and how nostalgic the idea of privileging the home country for creating old-fashioned jobs, it is unlikely that technological advances in artificial intelligence or instant communication will go away any time soon. It is estimated that young people who will join the workforce in the next five years will go through as many as six different careers. More jobs will continue to be lost to automation than to work overseas. One in four jobs in the U.S. is tied to some aspect of global condition and it is likely to grow further. How we teach students to be continuous learners, to be responsive to diverse and constantly changing circumstances, to be self reflective to find their core while being adaptive, are all qualities that will be more necessary than ever for everyone entering the workforce. It goes without saying that liberal arts training is at the core of developing such skills.

The argument for liberal arts is clear. But then why is it that liberal arts education is under continuous assault? I would argue that the problem is not with the articulation of the inherent values of liberal arts education, but rather, the way they have been taught. As Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University points out in his recent book, Campus Confidential, the problem is that in many prestigious universities, teaching undergraduate students is at the lower end of the totem pole, after research in one’s field and cloning graduate students to become the next group of over-specialized professors, perpetuating the system. It is also clear that there is little attempt to connect the contents of the liberal arts courses in the classroom with the real life implications of such knowledge. At a recent meeting of Indian business leaders to discuss the idea of establishing a new liberal arts university in India, one member pointed out, somewhat facetiously, that while she believed in getting a solid liberal arts education, she balked when her daughter thought about taking a course in Harry Potter at an Ivy League university. “How does such a course prepare my child to think about the real world? There was no way I was going to pay for that!” she commented. I thought about the question and realized that one could easily use the Harry Potter novels to ask what it did for children’s imagination, how one could nurture the idea of creativity, including wonderful made-up words and situations, and encourage young adults to be risk-takers and path-breakers. All of these qualities would come in very handy as the students navigate unfamiliar territories in the real world and imagine a future they want to live in. However, if the professor of such a course made no attempt to make relevant the lessons from Harry Potters novels, it would remain an interesting course, but without any real teachable moment. 
It is often said that liberal arts education will train you not so much for the next job as much as for life. However, it behooves all of us who care about the place of arts, humanities and science in education that we make an extra effort to make them relevant for the world which our students will have to navigate. Knowledge for its own sake has value, but knowledge that can manifest in a visible way in one’s life will have a greater staying power.