THE BLOG

The Practical Liberal Arts

05/05/2015 02:52 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

In the coming weeks, thousands of college seniors will listen to commencement addresses trumpeting how their education will enrich the rest of their lives. Given students' anxiety about the job market, what President Obama said in a January speech may resonate more -- especially for those who didn't major in applied fields and now have big loans to repay. "Folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree."

Or perhaps because of the buzz surrounding Fareed Zakaria's latest book, new graduates in the humanities and social sciences may feel renewed validation for their choice of majors. The CNN anchor argues that fields like philosophy and political science offer the best preparation for a wide range of jobs because they teach students to see the world from multiple perspectives.

We've heard all of this before. Studying the liberal arts is typically either cast as a timeless path for becoming a well-rounded citizen or as out of touch with current workforce needs. This dichotomy obscures an exciting trend in higher education: how schools are creatively incorporating one of the most important tenets of a liberal arts education -- critical thinking -- into courses that offer applied skills.

Students at Framingham State University, where I teach, can choose among many such courses. For example, Entrepreneurship offers them the opportunity to develop detailed proposals for creating a startup company. Students learn best practices by critiquing one another's work and engaging with actual entrepreneurs about their struggles and successes. Students in Methods for Planning Analysis similarly create proposals for addressing issues facing nearby towns. Peer feedback enables them to discover the multiple ways municipalities can effectively address local needs.

Likewise, the students in my Nonprofit Giving course use critical thinking to gain practical skills for working in charitable organizations. The course explores how giving can enable low-income people to access greater opportunity. Students invite local nonprofits to apply for $10,000 that the Learning by Giving Foundation has given to the university. Created by Doris Buffett, this foundation annually supports 40 experiential philanthropy courses at colleges and universities across the U.S.

My students invite nonprofits to submit grant proposals, and then spend considerable time evaluating how closely these proposals align with funding criteria developed by the class. Students devise nuanced questions for the four nonprofits subsequently given site visits. Detailed discussions about particular organizations' responses to these questions become pivotal in how students decide how to award the grant money.

These examples highlight that teaching undergraduates to think in creative ways aligns well with preparing them for specific types of jobs. Critical thinking can be effectively taught in a wide range of practically oriented courses. Learning marketable job skills is often an exercise in exploration.

Colleges and universities, therefore, ought to consider a new strategy for reinvigorating student interest in traditional liberal arts fields that are experiencing declines in majors. Schools could pair courses in subjects like history or anthropology with practical courses like mine on giving, requiring that they be taken together. Institutions should simultaneously publicize how the two types of courses similarly promote skills that are valuable on the job market.

Colleagues of mine in literature, psychology, or my own field -- sociology -- would likely prefer that students value these subjects for their intellectual content rather than for their vocational payoff. But if they are to best meet student needs, professors must change their thinking. This is certainly true for those of us who teach a large segment of first-generation college students that are bearing a significant brunt of the burden from escalating tuition costs. For these students, practicality guides their course selection.

It is a critical time for liberal arts institutions that serve this student body to engage in better publicity about the vocational value of the liberal arts. Now, there's a message worthy of a commencement address.