The question of the liberal arts vs. job skills has come up yet again, with a Chronicle piece, an Inside Higher Ed piece, and a response by Tim Burke among the most recent contributions. I thought I’d throw in my two cents with an unpublished letter I wrote to the Chronicle:
I was very glad to learn of the efforts described in “Habits of Mind: Lessons for the Long Term.” I have long believed that the emphasis on job skills in higher education is a mistake not only academically, but also on its own terms: too narrow a focus on directly applicable job skills actually limits a student’s job prospects. We hear over and over again that our modern economy requires flexible workers who can easily move among different tasks and settings. Yet instead of taking advantage of the natural ability of colleges and universities to cultivate these kinds of competencies, we are continually told that we need to retool our programs to do just the opposite.
In this case as in so many others, a relentless focus on practicality is the most impractical thing at all. And by the same token, the most “impractical” education — one that provides students with an opportunity to develop as fully as possible as thinkers and citizens — may also provide students the chance to develop the most valuable job skills more or less as a matter of course.
The institution where I teach is a case in point of this “paradox of practicality.” Shimer College is a small liberal arts college focused on small, discussion-based classes where students work their way through important primary texts in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The core curriculum introduces them to the major concepts, figures, and problems in each discipline. During their time here, students are expected to do significant writing within each field of study, ranging from a literary analysis to a research paper in the social sciences to a detailed account of a scientific experiment of their own design. They are also required to take a comprehensive exam in one of the three disciplines, where they must apply the skills and concepts learned from the core courses to a new problem that has not previously come up in their coursework. Finally, they must complete a thesis on a topic of their own choosing.
This education has much to recommend it in terms of personal development and responsible citizenship — and the same things that help them to live the examined life also help them to make a living. They learn how to work in groups toward a common goal, how to develop a working knowledge of new fields, how to write in a variety of styles and formats, how to apply previously acquired skills to new settings, and how to be self-motivated and self-disciplined. These are at once job skills and life skills, and there is no necessity or even possibility of separating the two. If workplaces can often introduce this artificial division, it is workplaces that need to change, not colleges and universities.