National studies have underscored the value employers place on the analytical and communication skills that training in the humanities and social sciences, cornerstones of a liberal arts education, is focused on developing. And the national press has repeatedly highlighted liberal arts education as particularly suited to contemporary professional, social, and political challenges. So why is the UW System moving to deprive students of the broad liberal arts curriculum that is broadly acknowledged as the foundation of lifelong professional success?
If the formula for professional success were black and white, it would simply be a matter of training students to memorize simple facts, giving them a flow-chart for their chosen field, and sending them off to prosperity. But such an approach to education has never resulted in a trajectory of continuous professional advancement, and it never will. The reason why is simple: human life is multidimensional, and all its dimensions are continuously evolving and interacting. As a result, perhaps the most critical capability for higher education to develop in our students is adaptability.
Adaptability – to give a mundane example – is what enables an employee to watch a short training video on upgrades to software utilized by their employer and immediately apply the improvements to their daily responsibilities. Those who possess such adaptability and combine it with a strong work ethic become prized employees with opportunities for advancement. Those who become industry leaders in this age of rapid technological evolution typically take adaptability one step further, to the point of imagining and manifesting the future. College and university campuses have long served as hubs of this sort of innovation, precisely because the culture of inquiry fostered by a broad liberal arts curriculum confronts us, students and professoriate alike, with a wide array of intellectual contexts (the sciences, cultures, languages, and histories that define human existence) and challenges us to adapt to different modes of learning, knowing and communicating.
To take an additional mundane example, email currently dominates communication in nearly every professional field; facility in written communication thus has a significant impact on success, regardless of one’s choice of career. But the liberal arts emphasis on writing goes beyond simple mastery of a professional skill to developing the ability to learn new skills. As John Bean so cogently phrases it, “When we make students struggle with their writing, we are making them struggle with thought itself.” His observation is based on the realization that effective written communication depends upon firm conceptual knowledge, and that sloppy writing is often a symptom of poor understanding. The struggle to communicate concepts and ideas effectively, which is at the heart of writing incorporated into a liberal arts curriculum, does more than merely enable students to craft appropriate emails. It promotes the conceptual mastery of new knowledge that goes hand-in-hand with successfully adapting to challenges in rapidly evolving technical professions.
It’s unfortunate that “liberal” has come to have a distinctly negative political connotation for many and that the origin of liberal arts in unrestrained ingenuity has been largely forgotten. The unrestrained ingenuity fostered by a broad liberal arts education is precisely what leads to professional success in our current era of swift environmental, economic, and social change. It’s a crime to deprive students at Wisconsin’s public universities of this foundation and the opportunities it brings.
Renee M. Calkins, Ph.D.
Executive Committee, UWM AAUP