Articulating the value of a liberal education

As someone who will participate in the next round of our general education revision process at Wheaton—and one who hopes that a more extensive revision is what we have in mind—I’m paying careful attention to colleges that have a firm grasp of their distinctive value-added and are able to operationalize and communicate that effectively. This Marketplace piece on Sarah Lawrence College is very interesting in that regard.

Responding to the specter of potential cookie-cutter assessment led by the federal government, some colleges are more clearly articulating their curricula and assessment mechanisms to their identities as expressed in core values and essential outcomes. Sarah Lawrence, an elite liberal arts college, is doing that in some pretty interesting ways:

Sarah Lawrence is fighting back with its own way of measuring value. The faculty came up with six abilities they think every Sarah Lawrence graduate should have. They include the ability to write and communicate effectively, to think analytically, and to accept and act on critique.

“We don’t believe that there’s like 100 things you should know when you graduate,” says computer science professor Michael Siff, who helped develop the tool. “It’s much more about are you a good learner? Do you know how to enter into a new domain and attack it with an open mind, but also an organized mind?”

“But what about jobs?” someone might ask. Karen Lawrence, the president of Sarah Lawrence, has an answer for that:

The abilities that the new assessment measures—critical thinking and innovation and collaboration—are the same ones employers say they’re looking for.

“We think these are abilities that students are going to need both right after graduation and in the future, and so it could be an interesting model.”

I think President Lawrence is right. I read at least every other month that employers want what Sarah Lawrence is emphasizing. As I noted in a post about a Chronicle of Higher Education piece about a year ago

research shows that employers think the following:

“A demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major." 

It [is] important that job candidates “demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning. More than 75 percent of employers say they want more emphasis on five key areas, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”

[They value] educational practices that involve students in active, effortful work—practices including collaborative problem-solving, internships, senior projects, and community engagements.

[They values] outcomes and practices that involve application of skills over acquisition of discrete bodies of knowledge.

These emphases sound an awful lot like what Sarah Lawrence has in mind. And they’re not unique to Sarah Lawrence. They’re common among liberal arts colleges. In a January post about two other articles, I reflected on my summer participation in the public release of a report by the 2011-2013 Chicago Council on Global Affairs Emerging Leaders cohort:

In June 2013, I participated in the public release of a report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Three of the report’s twenty co-authors shared the stage with two respondents. I was one of the people on the stage. The others included a Senior Vice President for the largest public relations firm in the world, the managing director of one of the world’s most innovative environmental financial products firms, a former ambassador, and the lead policy advisor to Chicago’s Mayor, Rahm Emanuel. Of the five people on the stage, one had an undergraduate education overseas, another had an undergraduate education at a large research university, and three had undergraduate educations at liberal arts colleges (Amherst College, Calvin College, and Wheaton College).

Despite all sorts of evidence, though, there are persistent questions concerning the relationship between liberal education and vocation. I have to admit to being a bit perplexed about the apparent disconnects between what people think employers want and what employers really want, between what people think a liberal education emphasizes and what it really emphasizes.

So we can’t say it enough times: What people imagine liberal education to be doesn’t do a great job of cultivating the dispositions and capabilities that people imagine employers want. But that’s okay, because what liberal education really is actually does a terrific job of cultivating the dispositions and capabilities that employers really do want.

Just in case once wasn’t enough: What people imagine liberal education to be doesn’t do a great job of cultivating the dispositions and capabilities that people imagine employers want. But that’s okay, because what liberal education really is actually does a terrific job of cultivating the dispositions and capabilities that employers really do want.

Of course, that’s not all there is to a liberal education, but we shouldn’t let fear of narrow misconstrual keep us from making sense of these connections for our various constituencies. No, what we need to do in general education and in other aspects of our various institutional missions is to identify, articulate, operationalize, and publicize connections between our distinctive core values and essential outcomes, on the one hand, and our students’ bright futures of leadership and service on the other.

Such work would go a long way toward answering the some of the charges against higher education and against liberal education, in particular. For this reason, Karen Lawrence hopes that “other schools will take a look at [the Sarah Lawrence model] as they figure out how to answer the national debate about the value of college.” I hope so, too.

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