What are the career advantages of a liberal arts education? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
The country is currently in another period of economic anxiety in which parents and students wonder whether the disjunction between the campus and the workplace leaves many college graduates unprepared for gainful employment in a hyper-competitive world. Rising inequality and the steep increase in the costs of attending college, along with mounting student debt, understandably adds fuel to this fear. Technology has enabled the growth of other "just-in-time" delivery systems of education, those that give the student specific training for a job that is available now. It's understandable that parents and students are questioning whether a traditional four-year degree should be the default option in today's world.
The context for the demand that colleges be transformed, though, has less to do with curricula and professors and more to do with rising inequality and the fear of falling behind. A century ago, pragmatists like John Dewey and W.E.B Du Bois argued that given the pace of change, we should not fool ourselves into educating people only for the tasks of the moment. Once we develop habits that just allow us to conform to the world around us, to fit into existing conditions, we stop learning. Instead, we should instill habits of thought and action that will give students a better chance to shape their own future.
Liberal education in America today can be pragmatic, empowering students with potent ways of dealing with the issues they will face at work and in life. That's why it must be broad and contextual, inspiring habits of attention and critique that will be resources for students years after graduation.
In order to develop this resource, teachers must address the student as a whole person -- not just as a tool kit that can be improved. We do need tools, to be sure, but American college education has long invited students to learn to learn, creating habits of critical and creative thinking that last a lifetime.
In the 19th century, Emerson urged students to "resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism." He emphasized that a true education would help one find one's own way by expanding one's world, not narrowing it.
The goal of this cultivated attentiveness is, in Dewey's words, "to free experience from routine and caprice" -- what we applaud today as innovation. By choosing a broad and contextual course of study, by pursuing a pragmatic liberal education, students begin to reshape themselves and the world around them, learning to think for themselves while continually reinventing what they can do.
By preparing themselves for 21st-century jobs, broadly educated graduates can reduce fears about life after college. But as empowered citizens, they can also work to transform an economy and polity now hell-bent on reproducing privilege and poverty.
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