With the corporate colonisation of education the central focus of securing a college degree is to fare well at the job market. This precisely makes the case for liberal arts education somehow weak. Essentially, liberal arts education is the higher education that includes a mix of humanities, sciences and social sciences. The idea stands in sharp contrast to the much-opted and conventional degree programmes that focus on narrow, tech-intensive and job-friendly subjects. However, with the changing demands of our fast evolving world of 24/7 news cycle and a highly globalised market place, old skill set taught in traditionally-run colleges and higher education institutes has gone obsolete.
To find out the rationale behind liberal arts education and its consequent impact on students and hence society as a whole, The News on Sunday interviewed Nigel Boyle. Vice President for academic affairs and Dean of Faculty Pitzer College, who was on a visit to Habib University last week.
The News on Sunday: How well-perceived is the idea of liberal arts education across the world?
Nigel Boyle: Well, it’s obviously a well-established American model. There are long-established liberal arts elite colleges that focus on undergraduate education, where the stress is on the breadth of education instead of the narrow tech-intensive skills being adopted. Many educational philosophers such as John Dewey have theorised about the role of higher education and its strong connection with the active citizen rate, which liberal arts education tends to ensure. The idea is gaining traction across the world, since now more than ever liberal arts education seems to be the only way to be adapted to meet the needs of the rapidly evolving world we live in today.
TNS: How successful has liberal arts model been so far?
NB: There are many liberal arts colleges across the world but at the very elite end there are some highly regarded institutions such as Leuphana University in Germany, Quest University in British Columbia and Pitzer College in the US that have fully embraced the liberal arts model that contradicts the very rigid and disciplinary models of education. These institutions deliver the best undergraduate education, better than you would get at a large research university or even Ivy League universities.
TNS: While the world is steering towards specialisation, why does the liberal arts model discourage it at graduate level?
NB: Frankly, I’m a victim of British Education system whereby you pick a subject very early as a student and specialise in it. But do you honestly believe that a 17-year-old knows much about anthropology or genetic engineering before he decides for or decides against specialising in it.
Essentially, a liberal arts college exposes students to a breadth of subjects alongside keeping a major so that they grow in to well-rounded and well-prepared individuals who can then decide what is it they would like to specialise in. Liberal arts education allows one to be a political science major and still be able to go to medical school.
TNS: How does liberal arts education benefit students in the job market?
NB: I believe, being broadly educated and being well-rounded leads to people being more fulfilled and invested in their lives. There’s also an additional factor at play. Previously, it was expected for individuals to get trained in a certain discipline, get employed and stay on that track for the rest of his life. It doesn’t work this way anymore.
There is little expectation amongst members of this generation to be employed lifelong in a certain profession. Today, graduates get employed at a certain place for a certain period of their lives and then move on and most probably end up doing something completely different from what they did at their previous work or what they majored in.
For instance, many of our graduates majoring in data sciences and computer science initially work for start-ups and head up to Google or Snapchat, but none of them intends to be employed at Google for the rest of their lives. Similarly, in Pakistan, there is a vast over production of engineers. In all likelihood, only some of them are going to do engineering for the rest of their lives; most of them will end up doing a lot of different things, like becoming a part of management or becoming entrepreneurs. Hence, it’s imperative for them to be broadly trained or else they would feel very limited.
TNS: What factors do you think are responsible for this radical change?
NB: It has a lot to do with the changing national and global economy. There was once a time when people wanted to work in public sector or for large corporations for the rest of their lives. Those careers don’t look the same anymore. There’s much more volatility to things. There are much more options, more opportunities and professions to opt from. The technology is changing so quickly that there’s much greater churn in life. The rapidity with which things are evolving and that includes occupations, has entirely changed the economic dynamics and hence people’s outlook of their career paths.
TNS: Do you think, now more than ever, organisations prefer employees who are graduates with broader skill set than with a particular area of expertise?
NB: Yes. It is because of the fact I have earlier mentioned. Employers are now aware that the job roles have evolved with time and no longer require the same narrow skills they once did. Today, no matter what profession it is, we need creative thinkers, problem solvers and good managers. For instance, teachers need to be creative thinkers to creatively plan and deliver their lectures, they need to be problem solvers to handle classroom situations, and need to be good managers to manage their classes and meet administrative deadlines. Hence, employers now look for people who are well-rounded and skilled in these areas instead of simply being good professionals in a certain discipline.
TNS: What role do you think liberal arts education can impact our society?
NB: Pakistan is at a crossroads, facing enormous challenges — economically, politically, socially, constitutionally. And the society is in dire need of individuals who are active citizens, active producers, and active consumers so they can contribute towards a better society. Pakistan needs individuals whose intellect is trained for its own sake alongside other skills to respond quickly to the world around them. This is where liberal arts education sets its claim to be tackling — by producing people who are both literate and numerate.