The Liberal Arts: A Curriculum for the Start-Up Economy

I am constantly saddened to see bright college students and their parents confuse choosing a major with launching a career, taking, say, business over their passion in English or philosophy solely because they can look on and see job posts for one and not the other. We tell students that majors are not career paths, but do we really believe it? Let's finally put our curriculum where our mouth is. For many of our students a college education is one of the most expensive purchases of their lives. So we can't blame them for thinking about their post-collegiate lives in financial terms when they plan their major. We need to stop bemoaning the decline of liberal arts and start connecting what we do to the world because we have a lot to offer.

A 2010 American Management Association survey of over 2,000 business leaders found that the top skills needed for business success were "communication skills (80.4 percent), critical thinking (72.4 percent), collaboration (71.2 percent), and creativity (57.3 percent)."

Clearly, these are skills that the liberal arts not only cherish but excel at. In short, we in the liberal arts need to change how we confront the world and realize we offer skills that concretely lead to economic success.

At the this year's Modern Language Association and American Historical Association meetings there was much talk about the need to reboot the entire curriculum of higher education. At the AHA there was a session on the writing of history, featuring best-selling authors telling historians how to write history that reaches a general audience. History books still are hugely popular in the public, but not many written by historians. The Duke University digital humanist, Cathy Davidson, reminded many at the MLA to see the "liberal arts as a startup curriculum for resilient global citizenship..." Davidson recognizes that the liberal arts, with a few tweaks, is the perfect curriculum for the start up economy.

Why? The research is clear. Sociologists and authors of Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Joseph Roksa, show that one-third of college students show no serious gain in learning, while liberal arts majors showed "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." This also must be the reason that most of the Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts undergraduate degrees.

So how do we move from words to deeds? We know that the new economy, with its fast moving parts, cultural complexities and societal disruptions, requires certain skills that the liberal arts can and do offer. First, let's not be smug and assume we have the lock on these skills. Rather than see this as a liberal arts vs. (pre)professions, we need to see it from a student's perspective and look for the connections. Second, let's stop measuring ourselves by the number of majors in our departments and start instead looking at us the way students do. Our students require layers of skills and acquired knowledge and search it out regardless of department. Third, let's partner with neighboring disciplines and professional areas to provide a total education for students regardless of their declared major. Rather than see professional departments as competition, let's embrace them and start the discussion about what students need and what we can do to help them. Lastly, we need to realize that for most students, the Core Curriculum is something they take on the way to their major because they see it as unconnected to the world they inhabit. We need to have a frank dialog across academic divisions that involve professional departments, the liberal arts, the career and internship office and especially the potential employers of our students. We need to listen, learn, adapt our curriculum to fit what we hear as best we can within in reason and with integrity and then move beyond simply discussing to implementation. We need to realize that in today's economy no one major or discipline owns the answers or can provide all that a student needs to succeed. We are, after all, a University, not a collection of free standing departments.

What I propose is a refashioning of the curriculum to provide what we do best, but to also contextualize it within the new economic realities so it is more useful. In my reading of the history of higher education, early 20th century reformers wanted to apply knowledge to the world's social urgencies. Somewhere we stopped doing that and frankly those muscles atrophied. The new economy requires entrepreneurial skills, a team or cluster approach to problem solving, and a broad theoretically rich toolbox. We should help train our students to apply their skills on complex real problems rather than merely abstract ones. Here I would suggest that a civically connected curriculum that connects classes to communities and today's social issues will make their learning more meaningful because it will also connect it to the world.

We our our students and society to provide the best, engaged education we can, one that broadens their minds and provides employable skills because both are desirable.