by J. David McLeod
Director of Enrolment Services
This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture, is called liberal education;
-John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University1
The deprecation and defence of a liberal arts and science education has gone on for some time and it is abundantly clear that the proponents of maintaining the liberal approach to undergraduate studies have not been resoundingly successful. A large number of students, parents, and employers see a liberal arts and science education as most useful as a stepping-stone to further education. A general science or arts degree is not highly valued as a terminal qualification. This is not to say that a liberal education is not recognized to impart useful skills. Rather, a widely held perception is that the abilities a university liberal education develops are less practical than the aptitudes that are honed in technical skills-based training.
Proponents of a liberal arts and science education have been increasingly assiduous in attempting to demonstrate that the learning that happens in their programmes well serves both graduates and employers (i.e. that a liberal education is practical and worthwhile). The growth of the 'knowledge economy' has been extensively cited here, yet progress remains imperceptible.
Here is a review of arguments in favour of liberal studies and a suggestion why they have enjoyed limited or no success in holding back the tide of preference for job training. The essential problem is that proponents of a liberal arts and science education have engaged in a debate with detractors that has been framed by the latter. Consequently, advocates of a liberal undergraduate education have fallen into using language that prevents them from drawing out some of the greatest underlying strengths that accrue to individuals and communities from the pursuit of liberal arts and science studies. Consequently, a brief examination of the discourse on the value of a liberal versus vocational education, especially characteristics of a vocational programme that go undiscussed (silences), helps to identify some of the greatest strengths of a liberal education. In many ways, it is in articulating the values imparted in a liberal versus a technical education that we can see the true value of the liberal approach to learning.
Most discussions about the value of a liberal education have been about getting students, sponsors, employers, and funding agencies to recognise the abilities that such an education imparts in the form of transferable skills: in particular, expertise that can be immediately applied to accomplishing tasks in the business environment. To their detriment, many advocates of a liberal education continue to assume that the benefits are apparent and so the wider public is simply informed that a list of all the knowledge acquired, skills learned, and abilities mastered is impossible to compile. When a list is attempted it usually includes such aptitudes as the ability to communicate, employ effective interpersonal skills, adapt to change, apply critical and analytical thinking, and problem-solve. The following two statements capture the essence of what a liberal education is believed to deliver.
"More than any other curriculum, the liberal arts train people to think critically about concepts and society, look at the big picture and analyze cause-and-effect relationships, break an idea or situation into component parts and put it back together again..." 2
"A good liberal arts education produces generalists who can think critically and creatively, exercise judgement, sort through complexities, tolerate ambiguity, communicate effectively and adapt to change..." 3
Certainly there is discussion about whether or not these abilities or skills are taught to and acquired by liberal arts graduates. Alverno College in the United States carved out a niche for itself in the educational landscape by explicitly articulating (and testing for) the specific skills and abilities that a liberal education purports to impart4. Dalhousie University has adopted a far less taxing method of accomplishing the same objective with its 'Skills transcripts:' simply attributing the acquisition of certain skills to specific courses and producing a list of these to supplement the traditional academic record5. In reference to the arts portion of the curriculum, Peter Wright put the question here succinctly:
"It must be established that graduates from an arts course do, in fact, attain the kinds of ends, attributes, capabilities and insights that an arts course apparently sets out to equip them with, or to enable them to equip themselves with. I am not sure that at present all humanities graduates really are able to demonstrate the possession of those kinds of qualities which have traditionally lain at the heart of arts courses. Is it really the case that all arts graduates can demonstrate critical reasoning, independence of thought, empathy with other cultures, etc.? I would guess not. And if that is the case it seems to me an issue of quality, and an issue of quality that is highly relevant to employability." 6
This line of questioning relates to measuring whether institutions do deliver the quality of education that they profess to provide. Although it is related, it is a different debate from the one that exercises the most time and attention. The focus of discussion about the value of a liberal education has not been about whether a liberal arts and science education succeeds in producing critical, creative and literate graduates, but rather whether such educational outcomes are optimal ones for students aspiring to secure well remunerated and stable employment.
The greatest challenge to the endurance of institutions that concentrate on the provision of a liberal arts and science programme is the belief that such an education does not well equip students to perform in the world of paid employment. The ability to think critically, be creative and communicate effectively are admirable qualities, but they are not as practical as the acquisition of technical or vocational skills that enable a graduate to perform the tasks that are central to the vast majority of jobs available (particularly to recent graduates). The problem here has been especially acute for advocates/defenders of the arts portion of the liberal arts and science curriculum. Therefore, it is instructive to look at D.M.R. Bentley's effort to identify three basic strategies that have been pursued by the arts community in efforts to define (defend) the value of such an education.
Bentley observed that the first approach in arguing that a liberal arts degree is valuable has been to assert that the study of the arts develops high-level analytical and cognitive skills that are eminently transferable to a myriad of administrative and managerial occupations; in private enterprise no less than in the public sector. The second tact is closely related. The emphasis that arts programmes place on reading, writing and discussion has been used to argue that graduates leave with the communication skills essential to the modern work environment. Moreover, that these skills are becoming ever more prescient as the importance of information and electronic technology grow in the evolving global economy. 7
These first two approaches are clearly the most commonly employed: these are the arguments that arts and science educations do impart skills and expertise that are useful in the contemporary business environment. The development of the so-called 'knowledge economy' has been very propitious for proponents of liberal education. Statements such as "Today with the emergence of the information age, the strength of a country is based on knowledge. National greatness will arise not from our natural resources or our factories, but from our people-people with new ideas and skills."8 are being used extensively to revitalize interest in a liberal arts and science education. Indeed, assessments of the economy, such as the extract below from a Merrill Lynch document, are being used to make the liberal arts and science curriculum relevant to the most technical facets of the developing economy.
"The new economy moves at a pace never seen before. The new economy is a knowledge economy based on brainpower, ideas and entrepreneurism. Technology is the driver of the new economy, and human capital is its fuel. The knowledge economy is people-centric. Our economy has evolved from manufacturing-intensive to labor-extensive. Fundamental to success in the new economy is how companies obtain, train and retain knowledge workers." 9
Such an approach is useful, it discusses the issue in language and using terms of reference understood by stakeholders and shareholders. It was well stated at one of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers annual enrolment management conferences that students do not attend university to be at university: "they come in to get out." An extremely small number of students embark upon higher education for the love of learning; they are interested in getting a qualification so they can enter/re-enter the workforce.
An example of the promotion of a liberal arts and science programme along these lines may be found in the recently launched 'train your brain' campaign by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Public opinion polls made it apparent that many Canadians are unfamiliar with the skills that arts and sciences graduates obtain, and find it difficult to conceive of ways in which those skills may be applied in the labour market. "Indeed, while people recognize that "learning to learn" at university is just as important as a technical skill, many now believe that an arts and science degree has limited economic value in today's labour market." 10
Bentley identifies a third approach in the contention by some advocates of the arts that the arts themselves constitute an industry. An arts education is therefore an essential component of the overall health of the economy by supporting jobs and training in the arts: theatre, publishing, translation, curating, graduate research training, and arts teachers.11 The same may be said of the sciences when the very teaching of the various disciplines supports the suppliers of assorted consumable teaching aids, book publishers, etc. A similar line of argument is that liberal arts and sciences graduates do not just do well for themselves, they bring a number of benefits to the economy and society as a whole.12 These approaches to pointing out the value of a liberal education are far less utilised.
Bentley sees the arts industry track as especially unpersuasive and the 'benefits for all' line of attack is indirect and lengthy. Indeed, Bentley describes all three approaches as deficient concluding that "Persuasive in their different ways and arenas as the arguments so far outlined may be, however, they have not been more than marginally successful in slowing the deterioration in perception and funding of the Arts and Arts education that, if anything, has been increasing in momentum during the last decade."13 Therefore, Bentley goes on to explicate a fourth approach: a view that Arts and Humanities should be studied (and funded) because they are concerned with the core elements of what it means to be human; and all societies must invest in studying humanity's highest aspirations and achievements.
"The champions of Canadian Arts faculties must not ignore the cognitive, communicational, practical, and financial aspects of Arts education, but they must tirelessly argue that, however useful and beneficial they may be to an individual's career or to society's economic well-being, these externalities are secondary to the enrichment that inheres in doing, encountering, knowing, and studying the Arts or the Humanities for the Arts' and Humanity's sake." 14
This is an old argument that was articulated a century and a half ago by Cardinal Newman in his fourth discourse in On the Scope and Nature of University Education. 15 The problem with this approach is that it speaks passed key decision makers. To anyone who already has reservations about the wisdom of embarking upon the study of the liberal arts and sciences, Bentley's approach would simply reinforce the view that the arts and sciences are the terrain of the wholly headed occupants of university ivory towers: doing their own thing divorced from the real world. Placing too much emphasis on an approach that effectively presents the teachers of a liberal education as having opted out will not bring desired results to proponents.
Proponents of a liberal arts and sciences curriculum have been left with arguments of limited effectiveness when it comes to advancing their interests or with retiring from the debate altogether. Approaches that argue that the liberal arts and sciences are valuable in terms of their contribution to the growth of personal and corporate wealth and prosperity cannot be dropped. However, Bentley's solution (studying arts for arts sake) is also unsatisfactory. Essentially opting out will only further exacerbate efforts to convey the value of a liberal education to those who decide where to allocate scarce educational resources and those who lobby the decision makers. So perhaps Bentley's argument that the subject matter of a liberal studies programme deserves to be pursued for its own sake already warrants revisiting. The study of what it means to be human (achievable through a liberal arts and science curriculum) can invoke a powerful emotional response. This is what advocates need to find a way to express.
Communicating the greatest advantages of a liberal studies programme is the problem. It is a communications hurdle that undermines the first three approaches: they are couched in terms and language that privileges educational endeavours that claim to be less about liberal studies and more about practical and vocational training. However, it may be possible to couch what Bentley is expressing about studying a liberal curriculum for its own sake in terms that will make such an appreciation for a liberal arts and science education accessible and meaningful to a wider audience. This involves linking the grander values associated with the acquisition of a liberal arts and science education with thoughts about where our economy and society are heading as the biotech revolution begins to unfold in a global knowledge economy. On this terrain we may find an argument in favour of a liberal education that speaks in terms that the general public can appreciate.
Bentley was on the right track with his 'fourth way.' The discussion about the value (as worth) of a liberal education has not often been about the values (as ethics) imparted in a liberal education. Although we occasionally talk about effective citizens and emancipated individuals, a lot more needs to be said about what a liberal arts education is really about on its terms instead of trying to discuss the advantages that accrue to graduates and society solely through the prism of economic cost-benefit analysis. This is necessary because detractors of a liberal education have taken possession of the terrain that defines what type of an education is valuable or worthwhile and, by default, even what a liberal education is.
One way to explore what is provided in a liberal education is to attempt to explicate what its outcomes are. However, this task may be usefully supplemented by examining some of the silences in descriptions of what a technically oriented skills-based education is about. Vocational training has a value system that, while not hidden as such, is seldom if ever probed. An attempt to scratch the surface here quickly reveals that a liberal arts and science education attempts to teach people how to live instead of just how to make a living with the understanding that such a education is the foundation for personal and professional growth and achievement. Other more immediately vocational forms of education teach people to perform routines (technical acts) without the ability to assess a skill's contribution to the achievement of any wider human goals; the quality of your life has no relation to the quality of your work.
A liberal arts and science education purports to provide an education that enables individuals to become critical, independent and reflective. If asked, a large number of employers, students and sponsors would agree that an education that developed such abilities would be worthwhile. However, too many do not value these outcomes as highly as an education "...that provides individuals with knowledge, skills and credentials that are highly valued in the workforce."16 As discussed above, Universities can say that the learning that accrues through liberal studies is applicable and do. The problem is that, on these terms, the liberal education is disadvantaged. Its strength, the general value system that underlies a liberal arts and science education and is imparted in some measure to those pursuing a general arts or science degree, is demeaned by vocational training programmes while the value system of a technically focused education goes unscrutinised on the premise that it does not exist (beyond the desire to see students successfully engaged in the workforce).
The advocates of educational opportunities that are not like a liberal arts and science education have denigrated the perceived value of the latter in efforts to promote educational goals that are not rooted in the same value set as those that inform the ideal curriculum of a liberal education. In some measure it is an inherent outcome of any effort to define oneself to identify and label others. In many cases, however, the negative connotations that have been applied to a liberal arts and science education are the result of pernicious competitive actions. Bentley observed that this process began over 100 years ago when non-university post-secondary institutions began to compete more earnestly for students and recognition. 17
Vocational training institutions faced an up-hill battle to find space in the educational marketplace and had to promote their raison d'être. The approach was to claim that students exposed to a vocational education were equipped to meet the needs of potential employers. This argument made the skills-based training more practical for all concerned. Such an education was marked as different from a liberal arts and science programme that was medieval in origins and out of date, and that universities had become the refuges of academics that had little or no real interest, let alone understanding, of the 'real' world (especially as it pertained to the business environment).
The slings and arrows of the vocational training schools struck their university targets well because the arts and sciences programmes had previously not been bothered to claim to provide the education that employers needed. The traditional liberal arts and science education was taken to be valuable because it built individuals of character with sound minds and the knowledge to be critically reflective agents in the development of their own lives and society, as demonstrated in an early 20th Century advertisement for Brandon College:
founded in character
and trained in ability
achieves the goal
Builders of Character and
Culture since 1899
Note that the circular does not say: 'meet employer needs, get a great job, and earn lots of money!'
It was assumed among the providers of liberal studies programmes that individuals educated in the liberal arts and sciences would do well for themselves and society. For this reason, a liberal education was deemed to be beneficial for the development of the economy as a whole; the immediate needs of employers were less important. However, our appreciation for the unfettered development of the economy has allocated more and more weight to what employers say they want and need from the education system.
During the 20th Century, society's needs were increasingly equated with the economy's needs. Advocates of educational opportunities that provided a different outcome from a liberal education did well to tailor the terms of the debate about the value of the education they provided in terms that appealed to this growing sentiment in the wider public about what was worthwhile. A liberal arts and science education, being the established and dominant form of higher education, failed to seriously engage in the debate for a long time.
As discussed above, the universities are now involved in defending the contribution that a liberal arts and science education can make to enabling students to make a contribution to the success of business interests. However, the great difficulty facing the proponents of a liberal education now is that their early absence from the debate has enabled detractors to set the parameters and tone of the discussion. The language that has been adopted to compare and contrast vocational training with liberal studies was constructed by the former to the detriment of the latter. This is all too apparent in the terminological dichotomies in common parlance: 'pure' vs. 'applied,' 'academic' vs. 'vocational,' 'education' vs. 'training,' 'conception' vs. 'execution,' 'mental' vs. 'manual,' 'useless' vs. 'useful.' 18
Of course, the supposed divide between practical and liberal educations is contrived. The notion that one form of education is more 'practical' than another is a construct that supports the claims of some education programmes over others. Language can do so much to set an agenda and mould a discussion. Call it 'macro skills training' or 'skills for life training' and a liberal education suddenly takes on a new aura of practicality. See what a difference it makes when you attempt to distinguish between liberal oriented and skills based educations using different language: 'liberal' vs. 'closed minded,' 'inclusive' vs. 'exclusionary,' 'unlimited' vs. 'restricted,' 'critical' vs. 'accepting,' 'open-ended' vs. 'closed,' 'emancipatory' vs. 'enslaving,' 'enduring' vs. 'fleeting,' 'useful' vs. 'useless.'
In actual fact, attempts to distinguish between two types of education as 'skills based' and 'liberal' are difficult because there are no clearly identifiable boundaries. The difference is not that one is a university programme and the other is a community college scheme of studies. Some university educations are highly vocational such as nursing, architecture and a plethora of professional and business programmes. At least a few community colleges in Canada recognise the importance of critical thinking and communication skills, and are attempting to find ways to accentuate their development in the college curriculum.
If it is not practical to distinguish between liberal and vocational training on the grounds of which is more useful, perhaps the answer lies in their underlying goals or values. The difference between a liberal arts and science education and a technical or vocational one is that the latter slips its values in unannounced.19
Brandon University's President Lou Visentin is fond of saying that Brandon University teaches people how to make a living, how to live well, and how to live with others.20 This is a most apposite approach for the University to take in attempting to reposition itself as an educational destination of choice. It plays to the strength of universities (especially those that focuses on a liberal undergraduate arts and sciences curriculum as Brandon University does) by acknowledging their comparative advantage in the area of understanding what it means to be a social human being. "How to live well, honesty, consistency, etc. are important parts of all roles we play in society, whether our occupations require us to have well honed technical skills or not. Indeed, notions about how to live and how to live with others is [sic] a part of any effort to instruct individuals in how to make a living." 21
At one time, the dominant reason that some people were pushed towards skills training instead of liberal university studies was an assumption that their social class or economic status precluded them from being able to or eligible to benefit from the humanistic enhancement to their lives that comes from a liberal arts and sciences education. Now many are being pushed to study a skills curriculum at the expense of a more liberal education because society has so completely bought into the idea that immediate skills training is the most appropriate and advantageous education available. What is not being said is who else benefits from the provision of a skills based technical education.
Doing a job well is never just a matter of skills. It is never as simple as tightening a bolt with the proper amount of torque or spelling words correctly in advertising texts or programming a piece of software so that it actually works. No job or career is either so simple-or so technical-that such matters as honesty, fairness, community, communication, and clear thinking do not make up its most important parts. Those who recommend a skills curriculum on the grounds of practicality have probably never held the kind of practical job they recommend for others or else they would understand the important role played on the job by non-skills issues. In any event they need in all honesty to say whose practicality they are advocating, for it certainly cannot be the worker or professional for whom specific skills alone are probably the least significant feature determining how well he or she performs professionally. 22
What is a technical skills-based education perspective on what a good life is? A view of the world that privileges a technical skills-based education over a liberal one is derived from a particular political standpoint. A 'practical' education does not just impart certain technical skills. No one should believe for a minute that omitting to teach about 'how to live well' does not in itself convey a message about how to live well. The very process of reinforcing and reproducing the idea that specific task-oriented abilities are most important imparts a value system.
The beneficiaries of a skills based technical education are not secret. Indeed, it does not even require an extensive or involved deconstructionist approach to understand that it is employers' interests that are served by so-called practical training: "...a great deal of the skills discourse is pitched in terms of what employers want. Now there's obviously nothing wrong with trying to provide what employers want, provided one doesn't distort the educational system in undesirable ways or disadvantage students. On the other hand I think, even taken at its face value, to cast the discussion of employability primarily in terms of what employers want is short sighted."23 One key reason for the employment focus being flawed is that the employers who have the most say on what educations are valuable are usually very large corporations. While it is certainly true that conglomerate firms and multinational corporations have a deep-seated vested interest in the well-being of the wider socio-political environment in which they operate, there is also great concern that business exigencies impair their ability to see and act in the best interests of individual and community needs.
The task-oriented, efficiency-privileging, demand-meeting nature of a technical skills-based education means that it fulfills a problem-solving role for a particular business enterprise, the economy, and even society as a whole. Problem solving, as a theoretical approach to the world around us "takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships and the institutions into which they are organized, as the given framework for action. The general aim of problem-solving is to make these relationships and institutions work smoothly by dealing effectively with particular sources of trouble."24 The hidden value of the skills-based education is that it implicitly accepts the prevailing order as its framework.
The focus on tasks and the skills to complete them without the opportunity to see how such an undertaking contributes to the advancement of the human condition is analogous to not being able to see the forest for the trees. Those focused on technical tasks wear metaphorical blinkers that make them unwitting agents of the status quo. Oscar Wilde expressed a similar sentiment well over 100 years ago in his inimitable way: "We live in the age of the overworked, and the under-educated; the age in which people are so industrious that they become absolutely stupid."25
The self reflective, wide ranging, inclusive and critical nature of most liberal educations have strong elements and features that enable their graduates to challenge the perpetuation of the status quo. Liberal educations are inherently threatening or potentially revolutionary to a socio-political system including the distribution of rights, privileges and responsibilities. Students exposed to a liberal education are predisposed to anticipate, expect, and even search for, different ways of doing things. Moreover, critical reflection and an openness to change is directed at our understanding of what it means to be human: precisely one of the areas where critics of big business (whose interests vocational schools cater to) claim the current commercial environment and evolving global economic structures are most likely to fail us.
An induction ceremony for new students at Brandon University last year highlighted the institution's expectation of how they should put their educations to use: "When you graduate you will be entitled to certain rights and privileges, but also a number of responsibilities. As learners at Brandon University, you will be introduced to the social obligations that come with a university education. Brandon University graduates are expected to use their knowledge to advance the well being of the community in which they reside and their fellow human beings."26
Marshall Gregory has argued that a liberal education is fundamentally liberating in two ways. First, a liberal education raises in its students an understanding that we are free to mould our own existence: what he called a 'spirit of existential freedom.' Second, Gregory argued that a liberal education imparts an ability to turn that sense of freedom towards personal and communal good: his term for this was a 'spirit of existential responsibility.'27 In short, he observes that a liberal education enables us to find answers to the great questions in life and then act upon the answers: not just to make a living, but to live well and live well with others.
Some students pursuing both vocational and liberal educations can fail to acquire the full potential benefits of their endeavours, but these are matters of pedagogy, effort by learners, and resource allocation. This awareness allows us to attempt to compare institutions offering liberal arts programmes with each other, but it does not provide the grounds to deride all liberal studies programmes. In any event, the claims usually made by the advocates of a liberal arts and science education about the outcomes of their programmes are not contested by the most vociferous and influential critics: only the relative utility of the learning.
Technical skills are important, without them we would not be able to achieve our highest and most admirable goals. Vocational training contributes to our ability to accomplish a great number of tasks both in the realms of paid employment and the remainder of our personal and social lives. A liberal arts and science education is an important part of this training because it imparts a number of practical skills such as literacy in the many different ways that we communicate with one another. There is no such thing as an education that is more practical than another where practical is taken to mean capable of being used.
A liberal arts and science education does impart real abilities that have meaningful impacts upon the relative success or failure of graduates to accomplish a vast array of specific occupational tasks. However, these strengths are often not immediately apparent or called upon. A liberal education rarely produces graduates who can immediately 'plug and play' with the business machines and office automation products in use in a particular industry sector. For that deficiency, a liberal education has been short-sightedly assailed and demeaned by too many. Criticism of a liberal arts and science education is myopic because the real rewards of a university education for both individual students and those they work for are, albeit not immediate, both enduring and exponential. The most practical (useful) feature of a liberal education is that students learn how to learn; a characteristic of which there are three aspects.
Liberal arts and science graduates are well placed to continue to learn because they know that it is possible to get from one island of thought and knowledge to another: they have done it before. Liberally trained students do not forget this lesson easily because of a second aspect of what it means to have learned how to learn. Students exposed to a liberal education become life-long learners. Along with learning content in the liberal arts and sciences usually comes an appreciation for knowing in its own right, and an appreciation for the temporal limitations on knowledge.
A final, and most important, anchor to the liberal arts and science student's ability to learn is the acquisition of a motivation to learn. A liberal education helps us relate our tasks, both the mundane and profound, to the greater meaning of our lives, the success or failure of the business we are in, and their place in the bigger scheme of human existence.
A liberal education is not just about how to make a living. Technology may be a driver of the modern economy, but this is not to say that a technical education is the route to prosperity for individuals in such a global context or the best strategy for a society to adopt. Futurists expect that technological advances and the bio-tech revolution will make questions about how to live well increasingly important. Look at the current debates swirling up around the bio-tech industry. Many commentators tell us that we are at the threshold of a dramatic revolution that will culminate in humans becoming the first species to master their own evolution. Here we have an exceptional opportunity to critically apply our broad learning to making a better world: to make a living from the opportunities that will arise as a consequence of the bio-tech revolution while attempting to ensure that the unintended or undesirable implications of the revolution are negated.
In addition to providing someone with the means to earn an income, a liberal
arts and science education is about how to live well and how to live well with
others. "If the liberal arts curriculum has the force to shape minds and
hearts in humane ways then this is a force needed more, not less, in today's
world."28 Bring on the general arts and science graduates to harness the
new potentialities of the bio-tech revolution to the improvement of the human
condition in all its complexity!