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False Choice Fuels Global Debate Over Liberal Arts Education

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This spring, over a million students, armed with newly minted bachelor's degrees from U.S. colleges and universities, will enter the job market. The recession may be receding but finding a job remains a challenge, feeding the ongoing debate over the best way to train graduates for the modern workforce. Liberal arts education, in particular, has come under considerable scrutiny. As the U.S. rethinks its emphasis on liberal arts education, other countries are increasingly recognizing the value of this type of training. Should the U.S. move away from liberal arts at a time when countries like India are investing in new liberal arts institutions?

Critics of liberal arts education assert that the U.S. is producing too many graduates who lack practical skills, and hold up narrow Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) training as the surest path to employment. According to this view, studying humanities and social sciences is "soft" and elitist. But this STEM-liberal arts dichotomy is the wrong way to frame the debate on how to train students.

It is a false choice to assert that Americans must choose between a broad-based education and an education geared toward job preparedness. A liberal arts course of study offers a foundation for long-term success by providing students with proficiency in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and cultural awareness. As people change jobs more than ever and the pace of technological change accelerates, it's these skills that will translate into a lifetime of success.

All of this is not to say that students should avoid STEM disciplines. Rather, students ought to develop a liberal arts foundation no matter what major they choose. Chemical engineering majors at University of Massachusetts Amherst, for instance, must take courses in writing, literature and history. The school says these courses are "necessary to understand the impact of chemical engineering systems in a global and societal context."

A parallel debate about the value of a broad-based, liberal arts education versus narrow, technical training is currently underway in India, a country whose top universities emphasize science and technology. The technical approach at these Indian institutions presents a counterexample to the broad-based training offered at many U.S. schools, but there is a growing sentiment in India that technical degrees alone may not be the answer to rising unemployment. At a time when the U.S. is arguably reducing emphasis on liberal arts education, India is experiencing a push for greater investment. Nandan Nilekani, former CEO of Infosys, summed up the importance of this shift at a recent conference we attended co-sponsored by Yale University and Pomona College on the future of liberal arts education in India. Nilekani remarked that higher education "should not just provide jobs but ways of thinking... Liberal arts education provides the ability to walk into new, uncomfortable situations, whether in politics, sociology, or technology."

Ashoka University, a new liberal arts institution located near New Delhi, exemplifies India's move toward liberal arts. The school's founding team of successful businessmen aims to provide Indian students with a "well-rounded liberal education comparable to the celebrated Ivy League institutions." "We think it's a false tradeoff to say that liberal arts education does not lead to a business career," said founder and trustee Pramath Sinha. "I came from McKinsey where our last two directors came from liberal arts backgrounds. As recruiters, we are finding that applicants don't have the requisite skills, such as crafting a basic email."

We interviewed Ashoka students who are already recognizing the benefits of a broad-based, liberal arts curriculum: "Most of my education has been very purpose-driven, and I wouldn't really rate it high for creativity or being imaginative," observed a student who studied engineering and is now enrolled in Ashoka's pilot program, a year-long master's course in the liberal arts. "I think a liberal arts degree prepares you to be a better person and will help you in your career." The Ashoka pilot has already placed graduates at top companies such as McKinsey, Microsoft, and Cipla.

With other parts of the world recognizing the value of liberal arts education, should the U.S. be backing away from it? Lost in the debate is the fact that the vast majority of companies appreciate liberal arts training in the U.S. context. Ninety-five percent of U.S. employers report that "a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major." U.S. liberal arts institutions have traditionally led the world in providing these types of skills.

Liberal arts education is not an elite mode of training for the advantaged few in the U.S., contrary to what some critics would have us believe. In fact, over 1,300 institutions of higher education comprise the American Association of Colleges & Universities, a group "dedicated to ensuring that the advantages of a liberal education are available to all students regardless of background, enrollment path, academic specialization, or intended career." Take Miami Dade College (MDC), for instance, America's largest higher education institution. MDC President Eduardo Padron acknowledges that, with 46 percent of its students coming from families below the poverty line, "success in college is more than an academic pursuit." However, he emphasizes that a quality college education does more than provide job preparation. It offers, Padron says, "a broader toolkit of skills and understandings - about oneself and the world we share - that allows each graduate to successfully navigate the inevitable societal and workforce changes."

As our nation continues to debate the best way to prepare graduates for the changing economy, we can all agree that the U.S. must continue investing in and improving upon its world-renowned system of higher education. Encouraging more STEM training, as called for by President Obama, is a worthy goal. But graduates should also build a capacity for problem solving and critical thinking by way of a broad-based, liberal arts curriculum.