There’s always room for liberal arts ‘soft skills’ in a changing world

The problem is not the education we provide, but how we convey the value it brings
By: | Issue: October, 2019
September 12, 2019
Ned Ladd is a professor of physics and astronomy at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

One day last spring, I fielded a call from the father of a first-year student. He was concerned that the advice I had given to his daughter was misguided. “She needs to focus on economics and math,” he told me. “How else will she get a job in today’s economy?”

I explained that we encourage all of our students at Bucknell University to sample from the full spectrum of academic opportunities—not only so they can find what they love, but also because engagement with many different ways of thinking is valuable for job seekers in today’s economy.

He politely but firmly pressed on. “I understand that all of that liberal arts stuff is important,” he said, in a way that indicated he didn’t think it was important, “but she needs hard skills to succeed out here.”

He explained that he was an executive for a large tech company. When I asked about his undergraduate training, he described his small liberal arts college experience, concluding with “that’s why I want my daughter to go to a place like Bucknell.” I asked him what he majored in: “Anthropology, but it was different back then.”

This conversation should set off alarm bells in the halls of higher ed institutions. When even liberal arts alumni fail to see the intrinsic value in a liberal arts education, we all have a problem.

Balancing two perspectives

As my conversation with the student’s father continued, it became apparent that the “it was different back then” was not his college education. He expressed great satisfaction with his academic experience, and he even admitted that his liberal arts training provided a strong foundation for job-related skills. The “it” that concerned him so much was the world “out here.”

When even liberal arts alumni fail to see the intrinsic value in a liberal arts education, we all have a problem.

He was convinced that today’s employers focus only on the hard skills of calculus and microeconomics, and have little regard for the soft skills of communication and critical thinking. Though part of him wanted his daughter to experience his liberal arts education, he felt she couldn’t afford that luxury.

It’s hard to know whether he’s right to be concerned. Many surveys indicate that employers want students to have the kinds of skills that are developed through liberal arts programs—including the 2018 “Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work” report (UBmag.me/err18), which was conducted by Hart Research Associates for the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Yet other measures of student employability, such as the Collegiate Employment Research Institute’s “Recruiting Trends” report (UBmag.me/rt18), indicate that the market highly values specialized technical education. Today’s newly minted anthropology major, the report concludes, can expect to earn an average starting salary of $35,000, which is less than 60% of the $61,000 starting salary for a computer engineering major—a sizeable gap that can’t be ignored.

Depriving opportunity

Despite strong statements from both academia and the corporate world, our students and parents are apprehensive. We parents are less willing to tolerate risks for our children that we gladly embraced at their age. The same protective impulses that lead us to insist on bicycle helmets and seat belts also lead us to push our children toward “safe” and “marketable” majors. The difference here is that the former has been shown to improve safety, while the latter impulse only appears to help.

In fact, by not letting our students wander through the academic disciplines, we may be doing them a disservice. We may be depriving them of opportunities to see the world in multiple ways and to value the perspectives of other disciplines and cultures. The enduring value of a liberal arts education is no more obsolete now than when the father who called me graduated.

Ned Ladd is a professor of physics and astronomy at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.