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Professional Opinion

Helping students find their calling

Why society needs more students with liberal arts skills
University Business, April 2016
Bryon L. Grigsby is president of Moravian College, a private liberal arts college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Bryon L. Grigsby is president of Moravian College, a private liberal arts college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Vocation: It’s a word with deep and important significance. Liberal Arts: This is an ideal of education with an equally deep set of meanings. Liberal arts colleges already do a great job developing a diverse group of socially responsible, critical thinkers, but they must start guiding students to their true vocations.

For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake can no longer be your primary focus. That idea died with the onset of the internet. I don’t mean vocation in the way it is used today—that is, as a trade—but rather by its original meaning, which was “to find one’s calling.”

So, how is this achieved while staying true to the foundations of a liberal arts education? The answer is deceptively simple: Liberal arts institutions can no longer stand pat with traditional models alone. They must start to embrace career exploration, technology and professional programs.

Freedom to explore

For far too long, the idea of preparing students for a career has been a taboo topic on liberal arts campuses. But it is not enough to only give students the skills they will need to be creative, ethical leaders. Students also need—and they want—to see how these skills translate to the workforce.

A liberal arts education should prepare students for not just their first career but also for the next two or three career changes after that.

To do that, students must have the freedom to explore the different opportunities that a liberal arts institution affords them. This exploration allows them to find their passions. And, at the end of the day, students are more successful, more deeply engaged and even happier when they have passion for their career.

One way that Moravian College achieves this exploration is by encouraging students not to declare a major during their first year. By not handcuffing them with a major initially, we encourage them to explore what is out there before committing to a course of study.

Under this approach, they don’t do two years of study in a particular major only to discover they really want to pursue a different major in their junior year.

The college has also created internship and co-op programs to give students extensive work experience in different fields so they don’t pick a career that leads to a deeply unsatisfying job. Like us, liberal arts colleges across the country are beginning to embrace this exploration process. Some are encouraging students to have internships outside of the traditional roles.

Art students, for example, should be interning with marketing firms, not just art galleries.

Other institutions show students and parents what career options they have with different majors. By doing so, they are easing the minds of parents whose children are passionate about a field of study that doesn’t have an obvious career path to follow.

Practitioners of technology

The 20-page term paper is no longer the only way to measure student understanding. Students need to live and be fluent in a world increasingly built around multiple digital methodologies to continue to be productive throughout their career.

To do that, institutions need to teach students to be practitioners of technology, not just consumers. All students today need to produce websites, multimedia papers, presentations and videos. They need to know how to integrate music, use clip art (media-rich) and photography, and to harness the power of social media.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that they don’t need to know how to write. Instead, it means that they need to know how to write and do so much more. Technology isn’t only important in the development of a student’s career goals.

Technologies need to be better incorporated into the classroom, too. The current model of lecturing students during class and then sending them off to do the work in their room is less effective. That approach doesn’t take full advantage of the faculty’s expertise, and it allows students to go off the track academically because they are left on their own to practice the lecture material they may not fully understand.

By using technology, liberal arts institutions can amplify the educational experience but stay true to their founding principles.

For example, at Moravian, the majority of the faculty offers flipped classes, which call for the students to go online to view lecturettes and have threaded discussions with classmates and professors before they return to class.

This enables faculty to see whether the students truly understand the content and to intervene if they don’t. Then, when students are in class, they experience the lesson through hands-on activity or discussion with the expert—the faculty member—in the room.

Some colleges embrace technology in the classroom by installing clickers that relay quiz answers to the instructor’s computer. This lets faculty quickly test student comprehension.

Other professors use a variety of apps embedded in digital textbooks to allow students to experience things beyond the confines of the digital “page,” ranging from virtual chemistry to cadaver labs.

Many colleges, Moravian included, have brought technology into the classroom through digital humanities. These assignments vary from art history classes that use the internet to explore the world’s finest museums, to faculty who ask students to use a variety of real-time digital media to explore highly political topics, such as Jihad or climate change. Students can then present the divergent information they found.

Every career increasingly needs liberal arts skills

Liberal arts colleges also need to better embrace professional programs. Fields like computer science and nursing might not fit into last century’s liberal arts model, but these careers are in need of well-rounded professionals.

Our society needs more liberal arts students, not fewer, but it also needs liberal arts skills (including critical thinking, ethical leadership, effective communication, quantitative and qualitative analysis, and cultural awareness) interwoven into professional programs.

The key is to provide students with a liberal arts experience that is so viable and important to an ever-changing world.

As long as they can impart these liberal arts skills to students (and faculty), institutions can update their content as the world changes and careers evolve. That is the power of the liberal arts, and it is the reason more liberal arts colleges need to continue to embrace professional programs.

Despite the naysayers, liberal arts institutions still have a crucial role to play in our higher education system. They provide access to a diverse body of students, develop socially responsible members of the community, and produce well-rounded thinkers able to adapt to the problems of society.

But changes must still be made. Changes that institutions should not be forced to make, but rather, wish to do because these changes are in the best interest of their students and society. Change is a social responsibility.

Bryon L. Grigsby is president of Moravian College, a private liberal arts college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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