Your SlideShare is downloading. ×
Global hr forum2009-david skorton-liberal education-preparing undergraduates for the 21st century workplace
Upcoming SlideShare
Loading in...5

Thanks for flagging this SlideShare!

Oops! An error has occurred.


Introducing the official SlideShare app

Stunning, full-screen experience for iPhone and Android

Text the download link to your phone

Standard text messaging rates apply

Global hr forum2009-david skorton-liberal education-preparing undergraduates for the 21st century workplace


Published on

  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total Views
On Slideshare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

Report content
Flagged as inappropriate Flag as inappropriate
Flag as inappropriate

Select your reason for flagging this presentation as inappropriate.

No notes for slide


  • 1. LIBERAL EDUCATION: PREPARING UNDERGRADUATES FOR THE 21ST-CENTURY WORKPLACE David J. Skorton President Cornell University Ithaca, New York
  • 2. 2 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 fields. 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 in themselves. 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‖
  • 3. 3 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.
  • 4. 4 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 techniques. 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.
  • 5. 5 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
  • 6. 6 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.
  • 7. 7 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, and why?‖ 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
  • 8. 8 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,
  • 9. 9 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
  • 10. 10 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. 1 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. 2 Parts of the following discussion are indebted to D. G. Mulcahy, “What should it mean to have a liberal education st in the 21 century?” Curriculum Inquiry 39, no. 3: 465. 3 "Confucius." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 29 Sept. 2009 <>. 4 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. 5 John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated (New York: Longmans, Green, 1947), p. 107. 6 Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 301. 7 National Center for Education Statistics, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2007, 8 National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, 9 Mark Slouka, “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2009, pp. 33–34. 10 Rhodes, “Role of the Liberal Arts,” p. 22.