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Time for liberal arts colleges to help students find their true vocation

For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge sake can no longer be your primary focus.
University Business, May 2015

Vocation. This is 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 vocation. For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge 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, a trade, but rather by its original meaning, “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.

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 only to give students the skills they will need to be creative, ethical leaders. They also need -- and they want -- to see how these skills translate to the workforce. A liberal arts education should prepare students for not only their first career but also the next two or three 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 careers.

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. This way, they don’t do two years of study in major, only to learn they want to change majors 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 should be interning with marketing firms, not just art galleries. While others are showing students and parents what career options they have with different majors. By doing this 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.

The twenty-page term paper is no longer the only way to measure student understanding. To be productive throughout their careers, students need to live and be fluent in a world of multiple digital productions (methodologies). To do that, institutions need to teach students to be practitioners of technology, not just consumers.

All students today need to produce web sites, multi-media papers, 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 does not mean that they don't need to know how to write; 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 needs 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 rooms 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 when they may not fully understand the material.

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 their classmates and professors about the lectures and readings before they get to class. By doing this faculty are able to see if the students understand the content and work with them directly if they don’t. Then, when they are in class, the students get to do the experience with the expert, the faculty member, in the room.

Some colleges are embracing technology in the classroom by installing clickers that allow faculty to quickly test student comprehension by relaying quiz answers to the faculty's computer. Other faculty are using apps embedded in digital textbooks to allow students to experience things ranging from virtual chemistry to cadaver labs.

Many other colleges, Moravian included, have been bringing technology into the classroom through digital humanities. These assignments vary from art history classes that explore the world finest museums through the internet, to faculty who ask students to explore the internet on highly political topics like Jihad or climate change and to present the divergent information they found.

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 (critical thinking, ethical leadership, effective communication, quantitative and qualitative analysis, cultural awareness, etc.) interwoven into professional programs.

The key is to provide students with the liberal arts experience that are so viable and important to an ever changing world. As long as they have liberal arts skills, institutions can update their content as the world changes and careers evolve. That is the power of the liberal arts, and the reason more professional programs need to be embraced by liberal arts colleges.

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

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