The challenges of the 21st century are substantially different in scale, scope and pace. The impact of increasingly intelligent and networked machines will put pressure on what jobs are out there for the average human being. Climate change and vagaries of nature will create newer challenges based on how we cope with them. As we brace ourselves for all of these changes and look for opportunities, re-imagining our education systems and enabling our students to become adaptable, resilient, ethical and purposeful leaders are extremely important. Students need to develop thinking skills and soft skills to succeed in this world.
In a rapidly evolving world, Liberal Arts and Sciences equips students with tools and perspectives to adapt to new conditions and environment. The competencies that its majors emphasise — curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, comprehension, collaboration and communication — are all talents and skills that are in great demand in today’s marketplace. If students learn ‘how to learn’ rather than simply ‘what to learn’ — which is increasingly available to anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection; if students learn how to ‘think through’ complex problems by looking for solutions from different perspectives; if students learn how to interact with different individuals regardless of their gender, caste, race, religion or class, then such students become valuable employees, citizens, and ultimately versatile human beings.
It teaches empathy
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills are certainly vital for this increasingly technological world our students will graduate into, but as Steve Jobs noted a while back, we also need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural and social in addition to the computational aspects of living. After all, the study of the human condition, across philosophy, literature, history, the arts, or languages emphasise the innate human potential of each individual and also cultivates empathy within each of us.
Residential Liberal Arts colleges view learning as a round-the-clock experience; students are not only taught by erudite professors in the classrooms; they actively learn with their faculty who ought to act as coaches and mentors in bringing the best out of every student, beyond simply conveying information. In such a setting, students also learn from their peers and such interaction, especially in smaller classes, promotes both a growth mindset and an ability to collaborate with others, an excellent life skill to develop.
Finally, there can be a plethora of curated co-curricular programming — lectures, workshops, seminars, conferences, performances — which promote interest, learning and cultivate the mind outside the classroom environment. A typical well-articulated Liberal Arts and Sciences curriculum emphasises ‘interwoven learning’.
This ensures that beyond exposing students to ‘core’ classes and ‘skills’ classes, there is a plenty of room in a student’s calendar to take courses leading up to a major and also possibly explore other interests as electives or a designated ‘minor’ or even a ‘double major’. These majors could be in subjects such as economics, history, literature, physics, mathematics, psychology, computer science, etc.
Beyond subject matter expertise and ability to think, ask questions, connect the dots across different disciplines, I would want every student to also develop abilities to collaborate with others and also communicate their interests and passions effectively. Such skills and talents are much wanted in today’s world and so the balance of breadth and depth is what makes a student well-prepared to handle a wide range of careers.
Faculty, acting as mentors, share their subject knowledge with students in small classes that promote inquiry-based learning and a student’s ability to develop as a learner. Complementing these curricular innovations are equal attempts to develop a student’s ‘body and mind’ experience by exposing students to activities ranging from athletics to well-being sessions, creative expression, embracing the outdoors and community service. This holistic educational development of a student beyond the focus on academic excellence is also what prepares students to ‘take on the world’ — not just for the first job but also for the many twists and turns their careers will take.
Therefore, Liberal Arts and Sciences courses prepare the students to work in a variety of sectors as it helps them achieve a strong foundation in different subjects and skills. Acting as a stepping stone to different careers, it also helps student manoeuvre out of one career to another. After all, a student’s first job is rarely his or her last; in fact, the evidence seems to point to a person changing jobs and careers close to six to eight times before retirement. At such critical inflexion points in one’s career, a person ought to be able to rely upon and reflect back on the foundational education and grounding received on how to cope with such changes.
So, a true liberal arts and sciences education prepares you for life.
(The author is with Krea University)