Strengthening the liberal arts
By Mary Dana Hinton, president, College of Saint Benedict and Michael Hemesath, president, Saint John’s University
Proponents of the liberal arts have long noted a growing disconnect in perception. Studies consistently confirm that employers seek the skills a liberal arts education nurtures — the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems. Recent studies find that liberal arts graduates are more likely to earn leadership positions and out earn their counterparts over the course of their career. Yet pundits and the public narrative continually promote a myth that most liberal arts graduates are unemployed and unemployable — that the value of a liberal arts education is simply not practical.
This summer, over 200 professionals from institutions and organizations across North America came together at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University for the Liberal Arts Illuminated (LAI) conference. Among the most pressing revelations was that it is time to assess, and proactively articulate, the value of the liberal arts and search for the most effective tactics to take us forward, within and outside of our institutions.
It is critical that those of us in private higher education challenge ourselves as to whether we can do a better job of systematically instilling the knowledge, skills and habits of mind we claim as our advantage. The emerging pedagogical focus on holistic transformation is one way institutions are helping students create clearer connections between their general education, major coursework and the high-impact practices so many of us have already implemented.
As an example, Rebecca Chopp of the University of Denver asserted that our liberal arts advantages come not from a curriculum but from what Chopp calls an “integrative learning ecosystem.” If our intent is to make manifest the advantages of the liberal arts (and, by extension, of our individual institutions), it is crucial that we create such environments.
Such a transition will inspire a shift from content-based transformation to “focusing on a holistic transformation of intellect, value, disposition and standards of action.”
Making that transition, however, will take institutional focus. One of the greatest advantages that liberal arts colleges possess is the ability to create environments that truly foster teaching and learning. It is imperative that we maximize that advantage.
For example, student-faculty interaction plays a critical role in transformation, but survey results reveal significant variability among liberal arts institutions’ engagement indicators, according to Alexander C. McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) at Indiana University.
The survey asks first-year and senior students regarding how often they talked about career plans with a faculty member; worked with a faculty member on activities other than coursework; discussed course topics, ideas or concepts with a faculty member outside of class and discussed academic performance with a faculty member.
As McCormick noted, “There are relatively large institutions that are doing quite well. There are small institutions that are not showing the kinds of scores that you would really expect to see.”
Charlie Blaich of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College saw similar findings in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. That survey showed that only students who consistently receive clear, well-organized instruction and deep approaches to learning gain critical thinking skills and deep interest in engaging in difficult intellectual activity, regardless of the size or type of institution they attend. “What makes it good,” according to Blaich, “is the practices we engage in, not the situation.”
All of this requires continuing conversation and ongoing action. It is imperative for the future health of the liberal arts that we work together to make sure we’re reaching our students with the full impact of our advantages. Our MPCC schools need to continue to leverage our individual and collective efforts to share, learn from one another and find ways to promote the value and impact of the transformative educations we provide to the students we serve.
To find out more and to join in the ongoing conversation, we encourage you to start with this review of the LAI conference. You can read related articles and watch videos of the LAI conference sessions.