Adam Chapnick’s fine article is so gently reasoned that one could almost miss the radical nature of his proposals. He rightly rejects the common view that employers do not value the liberal arts. Clear writing and speaking, careful listening and reading, gathering and applying information, using numbers, assessing complex situations, solving problems, learning on one’s own—all of these feature regularly on employers’ lists of desirable abilities of a new employee. They also routinely appear on the websites of (slightly defensive) deans trying to explain the benefits of studying the liberal arts.
The disconnect arises because so many students graduate without learning these skills. A typical university program is a smorgasbord of courses. Try gathering the 40 or so syllabi for those a student might take over four years. Where exactly is clear writing (to take one example) actually taught? Who is teaching it, and how? What happens to the student who does not learn to write clearly? The curriculum is more likely to focus on filling students with subject-matter expertise to give them a leg up in graduate school. This is fine for those who go but cannot be the principal goal of a mass system of higher education.
Ensuring that students actually learn the abilities associated with the liberal arts is not a small task. As Chapnick points out, it requires defining the desired learning outcomes, teaching them, assessing the student’s learning and, if necessary, holding students back until they achieve a minimum standard. For most programs and most faculty, this will be a radical transformation that involves a greater devotion to teaching, probably at the expense of some research. Government incentives may help, but they will not be a substitute for faculty who agree to make teaching their primary endeavour.
If universities rise to the task, will students do so, too? We should recognize that most are responding rationally to an uncertain labour market, high tuition and an incomprehensibly complex system of financial aid that leaves many in debt. In Ontario, for example, students pay for about one half of their education’s cost, compared with one sixth in the mid 1970s. It is little wonder that many have part-time jobs and have less time for study.
Chapnick is right to say that those in positions of authority must do better. If they do, I believe the students will do better, too.