In Defense of the Liberal Arts

08/03/2015 07:30 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2016

There have been a number of interesting speeches, articles, and opinions on the value of the liberal arts over the past few days. They seem to suggest a softening of the Obama Administration's focus on student debt levels to reshape the national policy debate more on student outcomes.

Embedded in these discussions is "kind of" praise for a liberal arts education.

In particular, U.S. Education secretary Arne Duncan spoke to their importance, softening the blow inflicted when President Obama quipped -- and quickly recanted -- a comment he made on the value of art history. The Administration has steadfastly focused until now on job training, placing special emphasis on the important role played by community colleges.

Secretary Duncan noted that the Administration's concentration on new education models does not imply a lack of appreciation for residential liberal arts colleges. Mr. Duncan took a swipe at some liberal arts colleges and research universities for creating brands based on "exclusivity," but singled out for praise Vassar and Franklin & Marshall College for their strategic commitments to increasing diversity and their work to attract low-income students.

In a second example, Nelson D. Schwartz argued in The New York Times recently that the gap between STEM graduates and humanities majors was "widening as top workers reap the raises." Schwartz found that "most American workers, including many college graduates, still face lukewarm wage growth at best and very limited bargaining power with bosses."

Schwartz cited Matt Ferguson, the chief executive of CareerBuilder, who reported that "the BA gets you in the door -- there's not much unemployment for people with a college degree -- but it does not allow you the wage growth you'd expect."

Schwartz concluded that the "STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) specialties have eclipsed the liberal arts as the portal to the executive track and ultimately the corner office in corporate America, even in fields where an English or sociology degree once provided entry." He cited respected Georgetown University professor, Anthony P. Carnevale, who runs the Center on Education and the Workforce. Mr. Carnevale suggested that now "the engineer becomes the director of sales and marketing. In the old days, it was the generalist."

Harvard University's president, Drew Gilpin Faust offered a spirited response shortly after Schwartz's article appeared on the front page of the Times. Ms. Faust noted that "in representing STEM and liberal arts education as antithetical, (Schwartz) reproduces a widespread and dangerous misunderstanding. A liberal arts education is one that embraces -- indeed requires -- broad learning across the fields of natural and social sciences and the humanities."

Most would agree that Ms. Faust is correct when she argues: "the world needs scientifically sophisticated humanists and humanistically grounded scientists and engineers who can think beyond the immediate and instrumental to address the bigger picture and the longer term." Further, she deserves particular credit for a quick, well-timed response backed by the prestige of her office.

For those of us who have served as presidents of well-regarded liberal arts colleges, these are both the best and the worst of times. Most of us believe, like President Faust, that the goal of the liberal arts is "not to ready its students for one particular job, but for many jobs extending over a lifetime and requiring a depth and breadth of understanding that exposure to the range of human knowledge through the liberal arts is uniquely intended to impact." Yet, the numbers from Schwartz raise fair and legitimate questions.

The first is that the broader world is bigger than Harvard or other top elites that educate a handful of the nation's graduates. While the numbers consistently suggest that a college degree is still the best entry card for many occupations, the bar to entry is now lower as the number of college-educated Americans -- now at 32 percent -- increases. College graduates often enter the job market at salaries lower than they anticipated. For these graduates, the cost of an education -- expressed as debt -- matters. For low- and middle-income students, there is a cost-to-benefit analysis when choosing a major.

Second, for the American higher education community there are fundamental questions to address. Is there a way to make a more rigorous case for the liberal arts? If the liberal arts better prepare students to articulate, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology interactively, and work collaboratively, aren't these graduates more productive than more narrowly-trained specialists, precisely the practical point that Ms. Faust also makes philosophically?

And finally, American higher education must think not only about access but also about outcomes. How can colleges and universities create "surround" - whether as stand-alone institutions or together - that better utilize internships, externships, persistence, and placement? How can their alumni, family, corporate and donor networks "surround" a good education for students with a range of continuing opportunities for graduates?

As a country, we simply cannot let our less well-endowed colleges -- which most students attend -- become exemplars of access but failures at outcomes. The best education is a life-long pathway to many opportunities in which historically the most broadly educated graduates do well. Market forces can determine many things. But they must not define and narrow the definition of opportunity.

America has a growing problem with income inequality. Higher education must look hard at itself to play a pivotal role as change agent.