Choosing the Battleground for the Liberal Arts

09/05/2012 12:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 05, 2012

Like most people trained my way, I believe passionately in the value of a liberal arts education. Given whatever talent exists within me, a liberal arts education focused my mind by encouraging me to reflect, synthesize, interpret and assess. I learned how to write, communicate, apply quantitative methods, and at least to a degree, use technology. I understood the value and promise of higher education. To make it work for me, I in turn worked hard unloading tractor trailers and rail cars, selling men's clothing, sorting mail, stocking paint, stocking and selling liquor, substitute teaching, assuming responsible debt -- whatever it took. I had to come to terms with who I was and learn to think for myself. Who could argue with the breadth of this training for the individual and its value to a well-educated citizenry?

The problem isn't in the concept. A liberal arts education still holds enormous value. Arguably in today's world the skills that are most required are those that are best addressed by it. The problem is that the practice by which education occurs has shifted. What our students already understand about how they learn the rest of us are now only slowly coming to recognize. Education is about a thousand teachable moments and not all of them occur in the classroom. Put in other terms, how our students learn and how we expect them to learn are sometimes different.

I'm not sure that the competition among teaching models is altogether a bad thing. My hunch is that the technical side to education will undergo the most dramatic transformation because the subject matter supports the use of technology and the development of specialized subsets of skills for which employers will accept certification of credentials. At all levels, certificate training will grow exponentially. From an employer's perspective, technical certifications will be enough in the workplace to improve standing and pay. We see the first examples of it already in taken by new consortial groups like Coursera where faculties will accept credentialing but not degree-granting at the end point of the course offerings they provide.

There are two dangers to the liberal arts implied by the growth of massive, open on line learning. The first is that students will come to value education differently than that taught through the common core of beliefs that underpin a liberal arts education. This is likely the new Maginot Line for liberal arts colleges and universities. Certificates celebrate training, typically short-term, and seldom tie to broader comprehension spread across disciplines. Degrees celebrate reflection, breadth and interpretation, a comprehensive skill set, and a passion for intellectual life writ large. Both are needed in the workforce. The value of a liberal arts degree ultimately, however, must be that it is as vital, dynamic, and complex as the civilization that values it. When Walt Disney once remarked that doing the impossible was kind of fun, he spoke as the voice of someone who understood the inherent value of the liberal arts. The argument offered by the supporters of the liberal arts must be expressed as a redefinition of the Maginot Line. It must be seen less as defense around which new educational approaches can maneuver and more as a bridge to new possibilities for collaboration on terms determined by those who recognize that certificates and degrees are different.

The second danger is that educators won't know when, where or how to make their case. Criticism of technology-based on line education or for profit certification is not necessarily a Luddite response. There are serious issues of quality, competence, and intent that will continue to arise. A negative response is a short sighted one ultimately, however, because the horse is well out of the barn. For those who have spent their careers defending the value of the liberal arts, the trick will be to declare peace quickly in order to ensure a victory. There is room in American higher education for for-profit colleagues, online learning and MOOC's. They are built upon the bedrock values only made possible by training in the liberal arts and whose framework if not delivery they attempt to emulate. At the end of the day we think deeply, however, because we are more than the sum of the parts of our educational training. In the future, Americans must come to terms with the kind of higher education they, and the American workforce, will need. We must be certain that the liberal arts wins the battle not so much on how we learn each day but on how we think over our lifecycle. Once we refine the debate, what fun to imagine the impossible.

There is a difference between education and great education. The case for the liberal arts is a simple one. It's worth unloading freight cars because the experience in a liberal arts education taught me what to value and how to use it. While I am happy to pick up the certification, what I needed for a great education was to complete the learning behind the degree.