In 1971, Louis G. Geiger wrote in the American Association of University Professors Bulletin: “As faculties and administrators become more and more uncertain about the value of knowledge for its own sake and about what a curriculum should include, the colleges’ dependence on the whims of their late teenager clientele is not only increased, but the very reason for the continued existence of the liberal arts college is being whittled away.” In the decades since the article’s publication, fears about the demise of liberal arts education have been routinely reiterated, particularly in the wake of the Great Recession, as college applicants grew increasingly concerned about the number of job opportunities yielded by their degree. Advances in technology have also spurred recurring predictions about the decline or death of the liberal arts—ChatGPT being the latest.
Concerns about graduates’ preparedness for an increasingly tech-savvy job market and the relevance of the liberal arts for an evolving workforce converged at the meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges last week, as reported by Inside Higher Ed. The event convened leaders of business tech such as Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health, and Katie Ferrick, senior director of workplace programs at LinkedIn, with the presidents of liberal arts colleges in a plenary session. During this session, Ton-Quinlivan and Ferrick urged a “rebranding” of the liberal arts as well as the implementation of job-focused skills development in digital technologies.
On one hand, liberal arts institutions’ concerns about declining enrollment have statistical justification—the number of students majoring in liberal arts disciplines declined by almost 9% between 2019 and 2021, as the pandemic accelerated downward trends which had persisted for years prior.
At the same time, conversations between leaders in technology and educators in the liberal arts are often defined by two key oversights which misleadingly magnify the chasm between liberal arts and STEM-related disciplines. The first oversight concerns the very nature of liberal arts education, and the second a failure to acknowledge vibrant technological advancements in the liberal arts which are well-established and attracting new cohorts of students into humanities fields.
What Is a Liberal Arts Education?
Contrary to popular belief, a liberal arts education is not simply an education in a certain collection of disciplines such as History or English, but an approach to education, a philosophy of education which stands opposed to transactional, capitalist interests. Seneca, one of the first authors to formally define the liberal arts, writes in “On Liberal and Vocational Studies”: “Hence you see why ‘liberal studies’ are so called; it is because they are studies worthy of a free-born [person]. But there is only one really liberal study—that which gives a man his liberty.” The liberal arts are liberal in the sense that they are also liberating—they are aimed at cultivating free thinkers and innovators, not mere workers.
A failure to recognize the methodology at the heart of liberal arts education results in mutual misunderstandings between those in the liberal arts and in STEM-related disciplines. Liberal arts colleges and their faculty often cannot articulate to prospective students the value of liberal arts education as a pedagogical approach rather than simply a disciplinary focus, which produces graduates who also struggle to relay to prospective employers this value. In turn, those in the field of technology often fail to articulate the benefit of incorporating new technologies into liberal arts curricula beyond their utility for the workforce.
Thus, for tech leaders to help liberal arts educators implement new technologies into the classroom, they have to encourage a curricular means to do so that is not grounded primarily in utilitarianism—the question is not whether to incorporate technology-based skill development into liberal arts education, but instead how to do so and why. In what ways can students use critical thinking, problem solving, and analytic thinking in their approach to technology? How might they approach evolving digital tools as philosophers, historians, or classicists? And, how can these tools enrich and expand studies in the liberal arts for a new age? As students in the liberal arts approach technology in this way, they inherently become better job candidates, equipped with the digital competencies to compete in the job market.
The Rise of New Approaches to the Humanities
Another key point which is often overlooked in dialogues between those in the liberal arts and the tech field is the ways in which liberal arts programs are already meaningfully incorporating new technologies into their programs. The rapidly expanding field of the digital humanities is a testament to the ways in which liberal arts curricula has increasingly embraced computational and other technologies. The digital humanities is a multi-varied discipline expressly devoted to using technology to advance the study of liberal arts disciplines. The nascent field has seen a boom in new programs and increased funding since 2008, as colleges and universities have sought to democratize and modernize educational tools in the liberal arts.
Scholars in the digital humanities have leveraged technology to document and preserve endangered languages, digitize and publish primary source texts, and construct interactive maps which narrate the history of American cities. While programs in the liberal arts can and should continue to instill technological literacy in their curricula, repeated urges for rebranding and modernization often minimize or neglect the multifaceted technological innovations already taking place in liberal arts institutions across the country.
Of course, many tech companies have recognized the value of an education in the liberal arts, and, as Ton-Quinlivan and Ferrick noted, employers are increasingly hiring on the basis of an applicant’s demonstrated skills rather than their formal degree. However, for this trend to continue, liberal arts institutions must continue to find ways to better equip graduates to advocate for the value of their degrees and incorporate technological literacy in a way that reflects the unique pedagogical strength of liberal arts education.