The Value of Liberal Arts
by Ed Kanis
Governor Patton's recent unveiling of the "Education Pays" campaign message on state highways certainly drives home the value of a solid education.
Clearly, students have several roads to take in charting their own career course. In reflecting on those options, I'm reminded of the results of an in-depth qualitative study completed by a local research firm several years ago which detailed the expectations business and industry leaders from throughout the region have of graduates of institutions of higher learning. While the study was commissioned by the Kentucky Council on Higher Education and focused on public colleges and universities, the insights it offers are useful for all institutions throughout the Commonwealth. They also lend added credence to educators who argue a broad liberal arts education is essential to students' success and their ability to contribute to those companies who employ them.
Perhaps one of the most telling of the report's findings was the weight placed by participants, who represented a broad cross section of business leaders from various industries across the region, on skills beyond mastery of one's particular discipline. Among the critical abilities identified by participants were communication skills—listening, writing, and speaking—which are considered essential for problem solving and decision making. The participants also expected graduates to work collegially with others from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds and to react and respond to changing work environments and organizational priorities.
It is in the area of adaptability and responsiveness that the liberal arts-prepared graduate shines brightest. Today's college graduates face a work scenario that in all probability will entail multiple job (and even career) changes as technology makes traditional ways of doing things obsolete. The liberal arts learner is well equipped to survive—even thrive—in this environment because an understanding that learning is a lifelong process is at the core of a liberal arts education. Rather than train for a specific job-one that may or may not exist in the years ahead-students educated in the liberal arts tradition are prepared to adapt to new environments, to think analytically and conceptually, to integrate broad ranges of experiences, and to assume leadership roles.
Aside from valuing learning as a lifelong endeavor, liberal arts-educated students have learned how to learn. This faculty will serve them well as the very nature of work and the workplace continue to be transformed by proliferating information and information technology. Since all students now need to be fully proficient with technology, and since information with rapidly emerging multimedia capacity is presenting so many new and imaginative opportunities for teaching and learning, the college that emphasizes liberal arts through the most advanced instructional technology will provide a solid educational foundation for career success and personal growth in the next millennium.
The executive suites of many corporations and organizations are inhabited by people who understood early the value classic education in the liberal arts would add to their careers. Lawrence Foster, Johnson & Johnson's former vice president and corporate officer responsible for public relations during the Tylenol scare, called a sold liberal arts education the best possible preparation for students aspiring to communications careers. Foster made this point in an interview withCommunication World just before his retirement, adding that learning to write effectively was essential. Perhaps he was recalling his reading and the words of Isocrates that remind us good writing is the surest sign of good thinking.
The liberal arts have been, and will continue to be, the most effective preparation for the leaders of tomorrow. It is primarily through the liberal arts that a human being is educated to think clearly, communicate effectively, work collaboratively, and develop the framework that allows him or her to succeed in the maelstrom of change that is contemporary life.
This piece was prepared for Dr. Joseph McGowan, president of Bellarmine University (Louisville, KY), and ran in various Kentucky daily newspapers, August 1998.
The author has served as an instructor, administrator and consultant for higher education institutions in Kentucky, Indiana, Virginia and New Jersey.