“People without a liberal-arts background really have no place to go with their skill sets,” said Frank Guido, a Culinary Institute student from Rochester, New York, sitting in the campus café and studying the Mayan Indians for a course he’s taking in history and culture. “They lack an overall knowledge, and an ability to relate to people and make educated decisions, and not jump to conclusions.”
As mainstream universities and colleges cut liberal-arts courses and programs in favor of more vocational disciplines, and the number of students majoring in the humanities continues to decline, unexpected types of institutions are expanding their requirements in the liberal arts with the conviction that these courses teach the kinds of skills employers say they want, and leaders need: critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and communication.
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“Some people are surprised, yes,” said Brigadier General Timothy Trainor, West Point’s academic dean, in his high-ceilinged, wood-paneled office in the Gothic-style stone administration building.
“It’s important to develop in young people the ability to think broadly, to operate in the context of other societies and become agile and adaptive thinkers,” Trainor said. “What you're trying to do is teach them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. They’re having to deal with people from other cultures. They have to think very intuitively to solve problems on the ground.”
That’s what employers say they need in their new hires, too. Three-quarters want more emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge, according to a survey of 318 corporate leaders by the Association of American Colleges and Universities—exactly the kinds of skills advocates for the liberal arts say they teach. Ninety-three percent agree that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” is more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate major.
Throughout higher education as a whole, however, institutions have been dropping the liberal arts. Between 2007 and 2012, four-year universities reduced their number of departments offering art history, English, languages, history, linguistics, literature, and religion, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reports. The proportion of all bachelor’s degrees awarded that are in humanities disciplines has dropped to 6 percent from a peak of 17 percent in 1968.
“A lot of colleges are getting so first-job-focused that they’re going in the opposite direction,” said Michael Sperling, the vice president for academic affairs at the private, nonprofit Culinary Institute. This is in part because, he said, “There’s a certain level of anti-intellectualism in the popular culture that inappropriately sees the pursuit of core disciplines as frivolous. And that’s unfortunate, because the kind of things you learn in philosophy courses and history courses deepens your ability to act in the world.”