Reframing How We “Deliver” the Liberal Arts

Last week I promised to spend the next several posts unpacking what I meant by “reframing, refocusing, and refining the way that we operationalize the liberal arts.” At the outset, let me emphasize that the focal point of these posts isn’t some new-fangled definition of the liberal arts. Instead, I want to concentrate on the way we make that learning happen; the way that we deliver the liberal arts.

To give this post some context, let’s begin with some data. (What did you expect!). Earlier this year, I asked my two student-workers to review 25 years of Augustana alumni data and identify those people who were working in a profession unrelated to any of their majors. Over four weeks we examined 10,680 files from the Augustana Advancement Office. As you can imagine, this is an inexact science, so we decided to be conservative in deciding whether someone worked in a “matched” profession (something that aligned with one of their majors) or not. For example, we assumed that a person who majored in art and was listed as a teacher was likely an art teacher and therefore we counted them as a match. Conversely, if an English major was listed as a park ranger? Bingo.

After categorizing and counting all of these alumni, we found that 4,137 of our 10,680 Augustana alums are working in professions completely unrelated to their majors – about 39%. In addition, while we found that alums from pre-professional majors like CSD, education, pre-med were working in a corresponding field somewhat more often than alums from traditional liberal arts majors like philosophy, history, english (for somewhat obvious reasons), we have a healthy dose of “mismatched” alums coming from virtually every major. For example, 41% of our former accounting majors are no longer accountants, 33% of physics majors aren’t physicists, and 20% of education majors aren’t teaching (the same is true for pre-med majors).

Yet these individuals are anything but failures.  On the contrary, many of them are quite successful, by any definition, and are clearly in positions of substantial responsibility. Others seem to be doing quite well in fields that simply did not exist when they graduated from Augustana (e.g., an early 1990s grad who now works in cell phone technology). Still others appear to have lived remarkably interesting and satisfying lives. I have to admit, as we looked through this list of alums I sometimes felt little pangs of envy, imagining the stories that some of these people probably have to tell.

So what does this data point mean? First of all, I think it suggests that the inclination to measure our institutional success by linking the major per se to a job and a salary is fundamentally misguided. Our graduates are supposed to leave Augustana with an array of opportunities that they did not have when they arrived. Moreover, those opportunities aren’t supposed to sit along a single path, nor are they supposed to avail themselves all at once. A metric that treats a major as a narrowing mechanism just doesn’t match our institutional mission.

Second, the fact that 40% of our alums are in professions other than their major corroborates what we know about present day professional life. The very concept of the career as 40-plus years in a single profession is almost extinct. Although the claim that a person will have seven careers a lifetime is up for some debate, it is clear that most people will change jobs on more than one occasion – especially during the first decade after college. So it seems to me that our educational goal for all graduates should ultimately be to prepare them to thrive in the midst of change. Sometimes that means adapting to new responsibilities and shifting conditions. Sometimes that means making the leap to a new and completely different opportunity. And sometimes it means resiliently responding to disappointment (or worse) in a way that turns lemons into lemonade.

And what does all of this have to do with reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts?

A liberal arts environment is an ideal setting for developing students’ ability to thrive in the midst of change, but only if we use the breadth of disciplines and the epistemologies within them as starting points for learning rather than an end in and of itself. This breadth of disciplines should become the tools that we use to develop our students’ ability to see a hypothesis, a claim, a problem, or an opportunity from a variety of perspectives and deepen their understanding of the issues at hand. While the knowledge of content within the discipline is a necessary precursor to understanding, as our graduates’ lives move them further from their final term at Augustana, the skills they developed to thrive in the midst of uncertainty or change will inevitably become more important than the content knowledge they acquired.

So the learning experiences that matter the most may in fact be the things that we consider the least. Right now we focus the most time, resources, and energy on the classes we offer, the activities we organize, the experiences we sponsor. Reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts means placing increased focus on the way that students connect these experiences and apply the ideas from one experience to succeed in another. Moreover, it means guiding students to strategically set up the ideal set of inter-experience connections that best prepare them to achieve their post-graduate aspirations.

Finally, reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts won’t matter much unless students grasp the value of this reframing. This means that students need to know, from the very beginning, the strategy for why they should consider one choice over another – or even to engage that choice at all. While an increased focus on the spaces and connections between experiences might seem daunting, fully developing our ability to help students understand this new way of thinking about a college experience may be even more difficult.

But if we don’t roll up our sleeves and take on this challenge, it will continue to be more and more difficult to explain why a family or a student shouldn’t just accumulate the necessary number of course credits by any means necessary (AKA for the cheapest cost possible) in order to obtain an undergraduate degree.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

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