LIBERAL EDUCATION: PREPARING UNDERGRADUATES
FOR THE 21ST-CENTURY WORKPLACE
David J. Skorton
Ithaca, New York
A broad liberal arts education is often seen as less important and less practical than focused training in the
sciences, engineering, mathematics, and technology, all of which have more obvious potential for
generating lucrative careers and affecting certain aspects of human life such as health, transportation,
communications, and energy production. More than two decades ago, Frank H. T. Rhodes, one of my
predecessors as president of Cornell University, observed that ―the advances of science and technology
are unmistakable in our daily lives, while the influence of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or the music of Mozart,
or the philosophy of Kant is much less obvious.‖1 The difference is surely even greater today, as many
kinds of technology continue to expand and alter at an exhilarating pace.
And yet, despite their relative invisibility, their lack of obvious relevance to the demands of a science-
based economy, the liberal arts provide the most useful and versatile education available to today’s
undergraduates as they prepare for life, work, and citizenship.
To defend this statement I must begin by defining a liberal education.2 In terms of subject areas, a liberal
education balances scientific, mathematical, and technical literacy with history, politics, ethics, language
study, other humanistic fields, and the arts. A precise listing of the curriculum is not important; a liberal
education is broad, covering many fields, while allowing for concentration in any one or two of those
In terms of its goals and methods, a liberal education is traditionally understood to involve acquiring
knowledge and understanding about a variety of areas with some depth and breadth, and learning to think
critically about these subjects. Oral discussion and written explication are both ways of learning and skills
This traditional understanding of liberal education, like most aspects of education in the West, has roots in
ancient Greece. From young boys’ training in reading, writing, arithmetic, music, and gymnastics, to the
secondary schools’ emphasis on literature, rhetoric, and oratory, skilled writing and speaking were highly
valued. An Asian parallel can be found in the life and teaching of Confucius, who mastered the ―six arts‖
of ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and arithmetic, as well as classical poetry and history.
He worked to make education widely available, established teaching as a vocation, and regarded
education as improving character and the humanities as appropriate subjects for potential leaders.3
In modern times, the traditional understanding of liberal education owes much to John Henry Newman,
who in the middle of the 19th century, in The Idea of a University, explained how a university education
ought to shape the student’s habits of mind, giving him ―a clear conscious view of his own opinions and
judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It
teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle the skein of thought, to detect
what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.‖4 Liberal education, Newman summarized, ―is
simply the cultivation of the intellect.‖5
Like many contemporary educators, I take a view of liberal education that encompasses these ideas but is
more expansive and pragmatic, emphasizing citizenship, service, community, and cultural pluralism. This
view is based on what I see happening in liberal education today and also on what I believe our global
society needs from its educated citizens.
As legal scholar and philosopher Martha Nussbaum has said, we need ―to support curricular efforts aimed
at producing citizens who can take charge of their own reasoning, who can see the different and foreign
not as a threat to be resisted, but as an invitation to explore and understand, expanding their own minds
and their capacity for citizenship.‖6
And indeed, the emphasis on diversity, multiculturalism, and individual expression that is common in
American higher education today does serve those goals. So does the focus on service, something that is
part of the heritage of many universities, including Cornell. Significant numbers of students participate in
―service-learning‖ courses, in which they gain knowledge, experience, and course credit while engaging
in projects that benefit people in need. Civic engagement and volunteering to address community
problems, though not usually required, are certainly encouraged.
But what happens to the ―liberally educated‖ student after graduation? Has this education prepared the
individual for the 21st-century workplace?
There is, of course, great demand in the workplace for employees who have specific skills in engineering,
mathematics, and most branches of science—subjects in which the liberal arts graduate is expected to
have some grounding but not necessarily advanced knowledge. In the United States, we hear repeated
complaints that our economy lacks sufficient workers with these skills. Many in our business community
and beyond fear that the preparation of our students is lagging relative to those of other countries,
especially in Asia, where student achievement in math and science is often more advanced. The most
recent report from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement shows
that U.S. eighth-graders were outscored in math by students from five Asian countries and outscored in
science by students from nine countries in Asia and Europe. 7
According to the National Science Foundation, about one-third of bachelor’s degrees in the United States
are in science and engineering, whereas in five Asian countries the proportion is more than half. In South
Korea, the number of first university degrees in engineering doubled between 1995 and 2005.8
The liberal arts graduate who aims to excel in a scientific or technical area will probably need additional
training or professional education. But it is important to remember that the pace of modern technological
development renders much knowledge quickly obsolete. Compare the knowledge and skills required
today with those required a decade ago in fields such as biotechnology, medicine, feature film production,
automotive design, and many more. Once in the workplace, the graduate in a scientific or engineering
field often needs to devote considerable time and effort to keeping up with advances in information and
But the skills, perceptions, and habits of mind developed in a liberal education are of permanent value.
Adaptable to a wide range of tasks, responsibilities, and human interactions, they are not just useful but
essential in the workplaces of the 21st century.
One such attribute of a liberal education is the ability to think critically about a variety of subjects,
including those outside one’s immediate sphere of expertise. This skill includes a respect for evidence and
an ability to reason logically, and it is valuable in almost any career, for it helps the individual to assess
factors intelligently and form independent judgments.
The ability to express oneself clearly, precisely, and effectively, both orally and in writing, is fostered in
most liberal arts courses, where students learn to discuss issues, take into account differing points of view,
and argue persuasively. In the workplace, these communication skills increase efficiency, forestall
misunderstandings, and enable smoother working relationships.
The liberal arts student also acquires breadth of mind—familiarity with a variety of fields of study and the
cross-fertilization of ideas among them. A history class’s study of the industrial revolution in Europe, for
example, may incorporate ideas about law, social welfare, technology, and economics. Personal
interaction helps to broaden the mind as well, as music students talk with mathematicians and physics
majors encounter students of philosophy.
A related attribute is that of cross-cultural understanding, often gained in the course of a liberal education
not only from one’s studies but from working with students, staff, and faculty from a wide range of
backgrounds. Learning about different cultures in the classroom and studying or living with diverse
people contribute to a global perspective and an appreciation of cultural differences, both of which are
vital in a world in which business, technology, and communication are not limited by national boundaries.
The liberal arts student also gains a grounding in ethics, centered on the ability to understand values—
including one’s own—as cultural constructs. Such a grounding may come in part from formal courses in
philosophy, but it may also come from reading and discussing great novels. Either way, it is crucial in the
arena of work, for when ethical considerations are neglected in the workplace, the consequences can be
serious and widespread. The absence of an ethical foundation is at the root of many of the problems our
society faces, such as financial misconduct and poor stewardship of earth’s resources. Moreover, science
and technology continually present us with moral issues, such as the dilemmas involved in embryonic
stem cell research or investigations involving animal or human subjects. People who work in
biotechnology, in health care, in the stewardship of money and other resources, in any position of power
over others—all of these individuals need to be accustomed to considering the ethics of their actions.
A strong liberal education, then, helps to develop individuals who bring to any workplace an ability to
reason and to think critically in any context, strong communication skills, a broad-minded openness to
new ideas, a global outlook and respect for the world’s diverse cultures, and a sense of personal values
and ethical considerations. Even if these graduates need further professional training to achieve specific
career goals, they are eminently prepared for the workplace and the world.
It is worth noting, as well, that many colleges and universities have developed special programs within
the liberal arts that look to the needs of the global economy in the 21st century. One example is the China
and Asia-Pacific Studies (CAPS) Program at Cornell University. This program is designed to train future
leaders who are equipped to address the inevitable challenges and negotiate the delicate complexities in
the various domains of U.S.-China relations. With four years of intensive Chinese language training, a
semester in Washington, D.C., and a semester in Beijing, CAPS students receive unprecedented pre-
professional training as part of a solid Cornell liberal arts education.
Graduates of the CAPS program are well suited to positions in consultancies, journalism, law firms,
businesses, financial services, nongovernmental organizations, diplomacy, and other government and
public service agencies. They are also prepared for graduate studies in law, business, and other disciplines
with a focus on China.
Cornell University also offers instruction in about 50 languages, as well as area studies programs in which
students focus on the history and culture of a specific country or region. Such studies are effective
preparation for the many kinds of work that involve international contact.
The major in science and technology studies is another example of a specific program, within a broad
liberal education, that is attuned to the contemporary and future workplace. Focused on the social and
cultural meanings of science and technology, this program is appropriate for students pursuing careers in
law, public policy or management.
Many other examples, from many universities, might be cited. The point is that liberal education, at its
best, looks forward as well as back; its content and methods of teaching are dynamic and highly adaptable
to individual goals and needs.
We should beware, however, of concentrating too exclusively on the role of undergraduate education in
preparing students for jobs. The business of education is not simply to produce employees for business.
That is part of what we do, but by no means all. The business of education is preparing human beings for
life—professional life, certainly, but also personal and civic life.
The writer Mark Slouka suggests what he considers the ideal answer to the question ―What do we teach,
We teach whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings; we teach, that
is, in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals
both sufficiently familiar with the world outside themselves to lend their judgments compassion
and breadth (and thereby contribute to the political life of the nation), and sufficiently skilled to
find productive employment. In that order. Our primary function, in other words, is to teach
people, not tasks; to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labor of forming
citizens, men and women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s
worst. It is only secondarily—one might say incidentally—about producing workers.9
Slouka immediately adds, however, that at least in the United States, the reality is quite different—that in
fact, rhetorical and financial support for education today is focused largely on whatever seems most likely
to improve the national economy. Generally, this means substantial support for math and science and
relatively little for the arts and humanities.
I have joined with many others in the United States, particularly through an organization called the
Business–Higher Education Forum, in calling for improved approaches to helping young people prepare
for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. We need to attract more students to these
subjects, which are indisputably of value to our economy, and teach them more effectively. Nevertheless,
we also need to support the arts and humanities as part of a broad liberal education.
Every skill or habit of mind that I have attributed to liberal education and praised for its utility in the 21st-
century workplace is also of value to personal and civic life—to the formation of the young person not
simply as a productive worker but also as an involved and informed citizen with a strong sense of
personal values and an ability to participate intelligently in public policy debates and elections. Critical
thinking and sound reasoning, cogent writing and clear speaking, all are valuable and often essential in
business and industry. But they are also indispensable to an effective democracy.
Breadth of mind and cross-cultural understanding are useful not simply because we do business across
national borders but because nations have political relationships and their citizens have personal
interactions across borders and cultures. So far as governmental actions are influenced by public opinion,
every country needs citizens whose opinions are formed not by prejudice and ignorance but by knowledge
and understanding. To return to Martha Nussbaum’s words, quoted above: we need people ―who can see
the different and foreign not as a threat to be resisted, but as an invitation to explore and understand.‖
As for the fifth attribute that I ascribed to liberal education, an understanding of ethics, nothing could be
more essential to civic life. What is the right stance of our laws and regulations concerning immigration,
health care, abortion, taxation, economic assistance for the poor? These are ethical questions, and they are
in the public arena every day.
Moreover, the need for informed and involved citizens is not lessened but increased by the importance of
science and technology in our daily lives and in our economic productivity. Frank Rhodes, himself a
scientist, asserted that we
desperately need an understanding of science enlarged and transformed by the humanities. The
complexity of important issues—from nuclear power plants to the effects of pesticides on the
environment—demands that as many people as possible be able to separate the technical issues
from the political and moral ones.
. . . For from the scientist we learn what is possible, but from the humanist we learn what is
acceptable, and so define the boundaries beyond which human dignity is imperiled.10
The arts and humanities nurture our creative instincts. They keep and convey our cultural heritage and
open to us other cultures around the globe. They help us explore what it means to be human, including
both ethical and aesthetic dimensions. They encourage questioning and independent thinking, and thus
prepare us to resist being manipulated or silenced.
The civic function of the humanities, and of liberal education more generally, is an essential attribute of a
healthy society. As we look to science and technology to shape important aspects of our future, we should
also recognize that, in the workplace and in public life, our citizens need the skills and habits of mind that
a liberal education provides.
I am speaking of a liberal education founded in traditional subjects but pragmatic in its awareness of
today’s world—an education that includes a focus on service, participatory citizenship, a sense of
community, and an understanding of diverse cultures. This broader conception of liberal education is
driven by a vision of what it means to be an educated person in the contemporary world. Such a person, I
believe, is equipped for personal and civic life as well as a work life that is productive, satisfying, and
essential to the global economy of the 21st century.
Frank H. T. Rhodes, “The Role of the Liberal Arts in a Decade of Increased Technology,” New York State Bar
Journal, February 1985, p. 20.
Parts of the following discussion are indebted to D. G. Mulcahy, “What should it mean to have a liberal education
in the 21 century?” Curriculum Inquiry 39, no. 3: 465.
"Confucius." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 29 Sept. 2009
John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, quoted in Frank H. T. Rhodes, “A Continuing Vision of Truth, Faith,
and Knowledge,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 6, 1978, p. 40.
John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated (New York: Longmans, Green, 1947), p. 107.
Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 301.
National Center for Education Statistics, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2007,
National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators 2008,
Mark Slouka, “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2009, pp.
Rhodes, “Role of the Liberal Arts,” p. 22.