Sarah Ann Hones, Southern Oregon University
Karen Sullivan-Vance, Western Oregon University
“Liberal education strengthens the mind and furnishes it with perspective, judgment, independence, and a tolerance of other viewpoints” (Rothblatt 2003). Historically the liberal arts, or artes liberales, the arts of freedom, have been associated as the choice for educating the elite. Educators have responded to the dogma of liberal arts like Pavlov’s salivating dogs. Even our students automatically respond when asked what it means to attend a liberal arts institution: It means the education is well-rounded. Unfortunately, most students cannot define how that well-rounded education benefits them. A young woman came in to the advising office recently and asked, “What does it take to be an advisor?” She is a new graduate from our liberal arts and sciences college. Advising came to mind as something she could do with her two month old degree. When asked what avenues she had been pursuing towards her first post-baccalaureate job, she said she had gone to the hospital to apply for a job in Nursing. The hospital had turned her away, explaining she was not qualified to work in Nursing, or most of the specialized fields offered there. Asked why she chose an area that she was not educated for, she seemed bewildered. Imagine her frustration when we explained that our advisors also had professional training. This woman had graduated in a popular field without the slightest idea of how to find work with her particular education and skills. In fact, she said, “I’ve wasted my time on this degree.” She does not feel well-rounded or even basically qualified for the work she has ventured out to seek.
Several questions come to mind regarding the liberal arts education we tout as elite and yet practical. Employers tell us they are looking for graduates who are good in both writing and oral communication. They seek the critical thinking skills so many of our liberal arts institutions encourage, value and teach in our programs. Employers are looking for flexible individuals with basic skills such as team work, computer facility, honesty, integrity and organizational skills. Is that what we offer with a liberal arts degree? It certainly appears to cover many of the catch phrases that appear on every liberal arts brochure, the websites for your typical liberal arts colleges and universities, and in the rationale for liberal arts general education course work. Since these are the skills employers want to see in new graduates we can say, yes, the education we offer in a liberal arts institution is of value. Is the education students receive the same education we value as a liberal arts education? Our young graduate who is looking for a Nursing or advising job would argue that it is not. She is not able to see or make the link between the education she received and how to use it to her advantage in the world of work. Our young friend headed off eagerly with her liberal arts degree looking for the name of the job that would match the degree she received. That makes sense. We often explain to parents that students are looking for the linear connection between the degree they earn and the job they seek. If you study Nursing – you become a nurse. Imagine the surprise of students who study Psychology. The options are not as simple. The complexity of having to consider what skills will apply to a particular job can seem daunting. It is a crossroads with many paths. “…too many students–and indeed, much of our society–…assume that the liberal arts are ‘ornamental’ rather than essential to the lives we actually lead” (Schneider 2004). Students, their parents, and many educators, including advisors, do not make the link between the purported benefits of a liberal arts education and the practical application of that education in the world of work.
How do the stakeholders in the liberal arts education process build the educational opportunities that will allow students to see how their degrees apply to the aspirations these students have for their futures? How do faculty, advisors and administrators guide students in building the practical liberal arts degree?
First, we need to recognize that there are specific ways in which students build their education. Students and parents often ask for the checklist of courses they must complete for a degree. They are looking for a linear path to that degree. We see many students choose degrees based on their direct career path. Given the cost of a college education, it is understandable. If the outcome students and their parents want is the career at the end of the educational process is the liberal arts education viable? Is a liberal arts degree viable in an education system that demands assessment and observable outcomes? If we link viability to the outcomes students and their parents are able to see at the end of an education process, then liberal arts institutions need to show that the education they present as valuable can be demonstrably valuable in terms of applying the skills learned to the outside world. A checklist is not an education. Advisors can guide students in recognizing that every student completes a similar checklist of course work. How they approach the courses, how they choose options, how they apply what they learn to what they hope to achieve in an education are several marks of a good education. Every student has the opportunity to build an education that represents the individual approach they hope to take in their growth and development toward one of the many careers they may have in their lives. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the building’s the thing. Rather than have students who can speak about their well-rounded educations, advisors can assist students in developing plans of action that make those liberal arts degrees valuable and viable.
How? Treat every advising session as an opportunity to guide students on a continuum towards an education. Assume that students can participate fully in their educational planning and demand that participation. Advisors can and should use every advising session to review where the student is in his/her educational process. Explain to new students how they will build their education. In a first visit, an advisor demonstrates how the liberal arts are designed to offer options. Often new students do not want options—they want answers. The advisor can dialogue with students about how the advising process gives the student a working relationship to aid in building an education. Together advisors assist students in progressively accepting more responsibility for decision-making in their education. Our job is to guide decision makers. Use each advising session to create a plan of action to be completed before the next advising appointment.
In our quarter system, students are told that their first advising assignments are due at Halloween. This gives students a clear and easy reminder about the deadline – which arrives just before the pre-registration period for the next term. New student assignments consist of activities such as joining a club of their choice, meeting with an academic advisor within their chosen major, finding a job that builds on their interests, or taking interest inventories to consider major choices. Typically, assignments include both curricular and co-curricular activities.
Each advising interaction builds on the relationship of creating a direction. Students change their minds. As they hone their plans, advisors provide a sounding board for planning and considering choices and consequences. Recently, a student asked for assistance in the reinstatement process to return to school after a suspension. This advising session became an opportunity to discuss a course of action and how each decision helped, or hindered, that plan of action.
Certainly many students graduate from liberal arts colleges and universities and find career opportunities, but these same liberal arts institutions can assist in making the commencement process to the work world more attainable.
Is there life after liberal arts? Yes! Several years ago a student completed an internship in publishing after her sophomore year. She was involved in copy-editing and through the process gained some valuable skills, but the most important discovery was the revelation that she did not want to pursue publishing as a career. She returned to campus to continue her double major in English and Political Science. The next summer she continued to build her degree by heading off for another internship in Washington D.C. with a non-profit, multi-national organization. She happened to come across her boss one day, who was struggling to translate a document from Spanish to English for a report. The student, who had a minor in Spanish, offered to translate the document. In doing so, she noticed that the boss had some creative copy-editing skills. He sometimes just “felt” that a comma should be insinuated where he wanted it to go rather than where the rules of grammar would dictate. She suggested there were actually rules and offered to copy edit the reports. After returning to campus in the fall the student relayed this story, with a dawning appreciation for the skills she earned in the publishing internship. While acknowledging that publishing was not the career path for her, she recognized that the skills acquired there can relate and translate to other positions. Our job as advisors is to guide students to develop skills and see the applicability and links between the skills they are developing and how they apply to what employers want. To take this in another light, colleges design a set of general education courses for students to take. Many students view these courses as a barrier to what they really want, which is the major classes. Institutions frequently do a dismal job of explaining the rationale and criteria behind these courses. Yes, you do need to take college level writing. Why? You need to be able to write clearly, concisely and develop your prose and grammar. Secondly, employers do not have the time to train students in writing. They assume that they have learned the skills that will allow them to write reports, letters and documents. No employer will give you a memo back with a grade on it and have you resubmit it.
How do students, faculty, advisors and administrators determine the value of the education students are receiving in the liberal arts? Do we count the number of students that graduate, the number of happy alums that contribute to the institution, or do we assess the outcomes? Can our students graduate from our institutions with an understanding and appreciation for the liberal arts? Can they synthesize information and make informed choices? Do they realize that their degrees have prepared them to live a life rich in choices?
Success is having students who see all the possible links for their degrees rather than seeing limitations. A liberal arts degree is more than a checklist. It is a blueprint for building the foundations for lifelong education. Advisors are the linchpins that articulate options, challenge decisions and illuminate the links from the curricular and co-curricular educational processes to the world of choices.
Sarah Ann Hones
Southern Oregon University
Western Oregon University
Rothblatt, Sheldon. 2003. The Living Arts: Comparative and Historical Reflections on Liberal Education. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Page 30
Schneider, Carol Geary. 2004. Liberal education and the professions. Washington D.C.: Liberal Education 90:2, 3
Cite this article using APA style as: Hones, S. & Sullivan-Vance, K. (2005, December). Liberal arts in the 21st century. Academic Advising Today, 28(4). [insert url here]