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Editor's Note

The Liberal Arts Fight Back

University Business, Mar 2005

Parents of high school students are worried. Very worried. They look at the sticker price of higher education and they want Junior to major in a discipline that will give him a better chance of landing a job--a well-paying job. Basically, they want their investment to pay off.

I hear it all the time from friends and neighbors. I see the frown on the parent's face when he says his son is majoring in "liberal arts." What he would rather say is that his son is majoring in accounting, computer science, engineering, or some discipline that he feels is a jump-start to a well-paying, and hopefully, stable career. It's not that parents have anything against a liberal arts education (I think). They know the value of a broad-based education, it's just that they believe that the job market is tough going for fresh-faced generalists, or those who aren't prepped to step right into a profession.

When my son was touring prospective colleges, I distinctly recall a couple of liberal arts schools constantly touting their alumni network as a means to help students find a job after graduation. The speakers knew that many parents score their son or daughter's choice of a college/major as a bottom-line decision relative to landing a good paycheck. Playing the job card is a smart move from the college's marketing point of view, I thought.

So I read with interest a recent announcement from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) heralding a new campaign, "Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP): Excellence for Everyone as a Nation Goes to College."

High school students equated
a liberal arts education with
being a leftist...

The initiative is designed to "champion the value of an engaged liberal education--for individual students and for a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality."

Billed as a decade-long campaign, the AAC&U said the focus is to "expand public and student understanding of what really matters in college--the kinds of learning that will truly empower individuals to succeed and make a difference in the 21st century."

AAC&U Board Chair Ronald Crutcher, president of Wheaton College (Mass.), says the LEAP campaign was spurred by previous studies and discussions that found a disconnect among the business community, IHEs, students and parents over the meaning--and value--of a liberal arts education.

"We found that the points of convergence between liberal arts schools and the business community were more congruent than between students and parents," Crutcher explains. "We conducted a survey that asked high school juniors and seniors what they thought a liberal arts education means. I wish I was making this up, but they said that they though it meant 'a liberal way of thinking' ...meaning you're a leftist, or something other than a Republican."

Crutcher adds that parents equate liberal arts with the humanities and do not link it to the social sciences or the arts. "If you ask a parent whose son or daughter is interested in business, they feel that, in order to get a leg up, they need to go to an undergraduate business school. But if you ask a CEO, they don't care what background you have. They want people who can think and who have the necessary skills and experiences. There is a disconnect there that we want to address," he says.

"Today's students and their parents have heard the message that college is essential to success in today's world," says Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "But no one has told them what they really need to gain from college, or how to prepare for it. This campaign is long overdue and will help today's students receive the kind of education that will ensure their own success and the continued success of our diverse democracy."

Some of the goals of the campaign are:

Change the widespread belief that students must choose either a practical or a liberal education;

Spark public debate about the education needed to prepare college students for an era of greater expectations.

The campaign will first focus on forming a National Leadership Council that will get the ball rolling by working with some pilot IHEs to form an action agenda.

Though short on specifics, I think the LEAP campaign is a worthy mission to address the issue of the traditional liberal arts education and how it plays in the world today.

And maybe the campaign's message will reduce the frowns of parents who have angst over the whole practical/liberal education debate. Let's hope.

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