While societal observers, particularly those involved with higher education, castigate liberal arts education as being passe, Inside Higher Ed published a piece today by Mary Marcy, provost and vice president of Bard College that made the opposite argument.

Marcy’s thesis regarding the gap between conventional wisdom and actual student attitudes rests on two legs: 1.) Liberal arts education IS conducive to a job search, and 2.) Liberal arts education matches students’ desire for a well-rounded college experience.

There are likely two reasons for this gap between conventional wisdom and student decision making. The first is that the separation of liberal arts education from employment is simply unfounded. Employers consistently say that they want to hire graduates who can write and speak clearly, who are innovative and critical thinkers, and who are sophisticated and comfortable with diversity. While not exclusively the domain of liberal education, these traits are certainly cultivated in a liberal arts environment.

The second probable reason for the persistence of the liberal arts is the focus of students themselves. Today’s traditional college age population is more globally-minded, less interested in work as a means only to material success, more willing to find middle ground on issues that typically lead to bi-modal responses (such as abortion), and entirely comfortable with differences in race, gender, and sexual orientation.

In short, today’s young people are balm to the liberal educator’s soul. Ideally, liberal education should literally do just that – it should be education that liberates, that frees the mind from the vagaries and prejudices of received opinion and limited life experiences.

This generation gets a bad wrap of being too materialistic mainly due to technology’s hold on Millennials. But as Marcy goes on to point out, technology can go with an engaging education targeting the whole person; the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

I find it very interesting that “for the first time since 1982, more than 50 percent of first year students identified ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ as an important or very important goal of their college experience.” This is a statistic I’ve looked at for a few years now with fascination and pessimism. But with this turning around, perhaps liberal arts is actually due for a comeback much more quickly than we realize.

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