In an insightful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“No More Digitally Challenged Liberal-Arts Majors: How to give B.A.’s in arts and humanities more career options without abandoning the life of the mind”), William Pannapacker relates a number of conversations he has had with employers and institutions providing internships for students at Hope College, where he teaches. In short, they stated what many of us already recognize: liberal arts students have learned how to write well, synthesize large amounts of varied information, read carefully and critically, and bring a curiosity and ability to learn quickly. Yet many liberal arts students share one critical flaw that plagues students at all kinds of institutions: although they are users of some social media, most students today struggle to create meaningful content and to actively use computer-related skills that are essential in many modern workplaces.
I posted the article on Facebook and asked alumni to comment on the article and how it relates to the training they received at Dickinson College and how it prepared them for life after college, and the responses were fascinating.
Courtney Cacatian, a policy studies major who is now Marketing Manager at Arlington Convention and Visitors Service noted that learning to make effective presentations, in addition to other practical skills, made her a more attractive hire. However, she agreed with Pannapacker and his call for colleges to provide other technical skills. Employers expect today’s graduates to know social media and often digital marketing. A history alumnus who is now an administrator at a private college elaborated, saying that he looks to hire people who have a “digital win” on their resumes. They should either be able to organize and analyze data in spreadsheets and databases, complete on online project such as a blog or webpage, or be familiar with industry-specific software. Alicia LeBlanc could not agree more, and she made the important observation that as much as technical skills are important now, they will only become more important in the future. Although she had some technical skills before coming to Dickinson College and acquired more while majoring in French and English, see argued that “it’s about applying the curiosity and confidence we liberal-arts majors gain in research & critical thinking to a different format: technology. Frankly, it’s the same process.”
In my mind, Alicia hit it on the nail and reflects my view (and Pannapacker’s it seems) about the value of the liberal arts. What we do best is to nurture students’ curiosity and provide them with broad-based research and critical thinking skills. Rather than training students for a specific job or even profession, we give them the tools to succeed in any job or profession because they have learned how to learn throughout their lifetimes.
So, how can we liberal arts schools meet the professional needs of our students? The history major suggested that the best option would be for departments to “actively replace papers and tests with digital projects that can be demonstrated” after graduation such as constructing digitized archives, making QR codes for cemetery headstones that are no longer readable, creating projects that, for example, create a statistical analysis of average grades for papers based on time of submission. Alicia agrees that if technical skills are not taught in college, where will they be? A good friend of mine who studied history with me as undergraduate at the University of Missouri, chimed in. For nearly two decades he has been in management and training positions in a number of companies and is now a director of brand and international operations, so he certainly has a sense of what employers today need and want. Of the comments of Pannapacker and my former students, he simply said, “I can’t agree enough! Digital skills (beyond the basics in spreadsheets, presentations, documents and social media) is so important, no matter what you end up doing.” The last word goes to Alicia and her desire for greater dialogue with employers. Alicia argued for a “greater overall marketing campaign … (and we all partake in this, in living our lives as successful, in any sense of the term, liberal-arts people) to remind people of this usefulness of liberal arts.”
Hopefully the conversation on this topic will continue. Although liberal arts institutions are not (and in my mind should not) narrowly train students for particular professions, it is incumbent upon us to continue providing our students with the broad range of skills that can allow them to be successful in their lives after graduation. Whereas we once could teach students to read deeply, analyze critically, and write persuasively, these skills are not enough. They are still essential and provide the foundations for all else, but we must also begin to think of ways that we can introduce technical skills into our classrooms to complement the training we have long provided.