20140304_121634This talk was presented at SxSWedu in Austin for the panel titled, “Can the Liberal Arts Survive in an Age of Innovation?”

It is really worth exploring the need to defend an historical artifact that dates back to the 1870s when Charles Eliot, the President of Harvard, decided to make college the gateway to professional schools (see Louis Menand’s book). Eliot believed that utility should be underscored exclusively in graduate school but that college should be what he called the “the enthusiastic study of subjects for the love of them without any ulterior objects.” In this anti-utilitarian set-up, Eliot’s notion was you would learn everything you needed to know professionally after college. This has become the collegiate ideal and the basis of much our postsecondary system of education. 

But of course, the separation of learning to know and learning to do only works if college is a luxury good (as it was back then) and not a necessity (as it seems to be today), or if costs for a four-year pursuit of passions didn’t come with a prohibitive price tag. It would also work if companies were willing to invest in training new employees instead of expecting them to contribute on day one.

Right now, the pressures are mounting on a liberal arts education because there is a growing skills gap. McKinsey analysts estimate that the number of skillsets needed in the workforce has increased rapidly from 178 in September 2009 to 924 in June 2012. Unfortunately, most traditional institutions have not adapted to this surge in demand of skillsets, and as a result, the gap has widened between degree-holders and the jobs available today.

At the same time, students are becoming much more savvy and more cognizant of the need for direct connections with employers. If colleges continue to eschew the need to tie education to economic relevance, they will risk losing out to learning providers who offer a much clearer pathway to obvious learning outcomes like job attainment.

We must embrace the fact that “ours is a society based on work,” or as Sir Michael Barber puts it: “Learning and work are becoming inseparable. Indeed one could argue that this is precisely what it means to have a knowledge economy or a learning society. It follows that if work is becoming learning, then learning needs to become work—and universities need to become alive to the possibilities.”

When we have “one in three graduates of four-year colleges [who] feels their education did not prepare them well for employment,” or when newly minted bachelor’s degree-holders are attending community college after they graduate in order to certify themselves in “middle skills,” there is something clearly amiss. The signaling effect of a college degree is just not a precise enough encapsulation of skills for the knowledge economy of our times.

In an effort to fill this gap, you have entrepreneurs like Matthew Sigelman, the CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, who has identified eight technical skillsets that range from marketing to business, graphic design, and IT networking that when developed through additional coursework, minors or internships can almost double the amount of jobs for which liberal arts graduates would be competitive. And more recently, Kristen Hamilton and Josh Jarrett have introduced Koru, which is trying to facilitate that liberal arts to workforce transition by partnering directly with universities and colleges and creating a more immersive work experience for college students.

All this is a start, but we need to position liberal arts students better and strengthen what Anthony Carnevale calls a much-needed “cross-fertilization between liberal education and more applied curricula.” We cannot expect students to assume a “wait and see” perspective of the benefits of the liberal arts. I do not believe it’s enough to promise students a trajectory with a liberal arts degree nor defend it by using the usual buzzwords like critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving as though these are skills inherently built into a liberal arts education. And I say this as someone who has a Ph.D. in the humanities and served as a professor for several years at a small private liberal arts college. Despite my liberal arts leaning, I agree wholeheartedly with Andrew Simmons when he recently wrote in an article in The Atlantic, “All students should learn that privilege is connected to the pursuit of passions.”

We are now at an inflection point at which the pursuit of passions is indeed a privilege and now a luxury good. Academics have never really been great at proving their relevance to industry. There is a deep unwillingness to embrace the idea that college learning is tied directly to “training” students for economy. But more and more, a dramatic mental shift needs to take place. If institutions and academics wish to uphold the liberal arts, they must move beyond the insularity of academia and make the case for economic relevance. Employers are really the ultimate consumers of degree-holders, and if the gap between learning and the workforce continues to widen, there will be a space in which disruptive innovations will be able to thrive and put enormous pressure on established and traditional institutions of higher education.

Although much ado has been made about online education’s potential disruption of traditional postsecondary education, observers have framed the threat imprecisely. Disruptive innovations do not compete directly with established institutions of higher education; in fact, the theory predicts that head-on competition with incumbents most often results in failure. Disruptive innovations must find their footholds in what we call nonconsumption. In their turn away from career-oriented training, colleges and universities are leaving unattended a niche of nonconsumers—people over-served by traditional forms of higher education, underprepared for the workforce, and seeking lifelong learning pathways. Who fills the vacancy and creates strong linkages between learning outcomes and the workforce will be the key to understanding the tectonic shifts in higher education to come.


  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD