Episode 15: Liberal Arts, Part 1

The words "Liberal Arts" have a confused and loaded connotation in the world today. Words can often have multiple meanings and often people impose their own feelings on a phrase, despite the context. What does it mean... liberal arts? This is part 1 of our discussion on the subject.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again, everyone. Welcome to Solutions for Higher Education. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I am joined, as always, but the president of Southern Utah University, Scott L Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: And good morning, Steve.

Meredith: It's always a pleasure to see you. And today, we're joined in-studio by a special guest, and before I turn it over to you to introduce him, I just want to say, I've been in and around academic administration for close to 25 years, and our guest today is the only one I have ever met that has intercepted a pass by NFL Hall-of-Famer Troy Aikman. [All laugh] To be fair, Aikman was not in the NFL when he threw that pass. However, I still think that's pretty impressive. Who's our guest today?

Wyatt: So we welcome Dr. Brad Cook. He is the Provost at Southern Utah University and, welcome, Brad. We're happy you joined us.

Brad Cook: Thank you, President. Thanks, Steve for having me here.

Wyatt: So Brad, you've been introduced as a football star, so why don't you tell us your academic background? Tell us, what your majors were and degrees? That's kind of fun.

Cook: Yeah. So I was one of those students that couldn't make up their mind. I think it was pretty late in my junior year when I decided to major in International Relations. I had some sort of vague idea to work for the State Department or in diplomacy or something. But I grew up overseas as a kid, so I was very interested in things particularly related to the Middle East. I grew up in the Middle East—I grew up in Saudi Arabia as a kid—so it was a very defining period. And so in college, I ended up sort of migrating, gravitating to those subjects that related to that part of the world. So by the time I was a senior at Stanford, I sort of had enough credits to sort of put together with…in International Relations just as sort of an accent because I had to decide on a major with the courses I had taken. But I mostly had driven my academic experience by individual interest more than anything specific in the end in terms of a career. I ended up staying at Stanford and finishing a Master's Degree in Social Science of Education, which in itself is also a very liberal way to understand education and, again, I focused my research and my writing on education systems in the Middle East. And then a Doctorate in Middle East Studies, focusing on looking at the role of public higher education in Egypt, so I spent a lot of my academic career as a graduate student, as a doctoral student doing field work in Cairo, Egypt. And a lot of time on university campuses in and around Cairo. So I am I guess in a way sort of a billboard for the liberal arts. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Well, and the school that you studied at in England is a small, obscure place that's been around for more than 800 years. [Laugher] Um, Oxford I think?

Cook: Yeah, University of Oxford. So here's an interesting story. When I was there, they were considering putting together a law school—no sorry, a business school—at Oxford. And the debate was they didn't want to have a business school because they didn't want to have a  vocational or technical education [All laugh] They do now have a business school, but that was just how out of touch places like Oxford can be. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Well let's jump into these words that are interesting, particularly interesting in America today, and those are the words that comprise liberal arts. And I think they're really confusing to people. English is one of those languages where words have multiple meanings, and when one of the meanings of the word has a certain connotation, it's hard to use the word in any sense without that troubling connotation, good or bad, imposing on all other meanings of the word. So, what does it mean to be…what does the word "liberal" mean?

Cook: Yeah. So there are probably at least three dimensions of that we probably need to unpack. There are liberal arts, which typical relates to certain types of disciplines. So the liberal arts majors, so English, sociology, anthropology…

Wyatt: Like the Democrat Party and the Green Party and…

Cook: [Laughter]

Wyatt: Those kinds of things? [All laugh]

Cook: Yeah, this is where confusion reigns, I think, is the term "liberal" has been quite politicized. But there are the liberal arts, which relate to disciplines.

Wyatt: Don't have any relationship to politics?

Cook: No relationship to politics at all. Then there's liberal education, which really sort of connotes a broader set of skills. Sort of a broad based, transferable skill set. So communication and critical thinking and ethical reasoning and all of these sorts of things that an education, a liberal education, can provide. And in a way, how it started out though…the term actually goes back to the Greeks. That when it was talked about as a liberal education really was about education for those that were free. What is the proper education for those that weren't slaves? And often when I speak to students and parents about trying to understand or wrap their head around the term liberal in this sense, with a small "l", let's emphasize, is "Think about this: if I were an employer, if I were your employer for example and I was considering giving you a raise, would you want me to be liberal with my raise? Or conservative with my raise?" Now, that's not a political statement. That is essentially just one that is liberally given. But I think that, especially in the Midwest and the Intermountain West, often we bring up the term liberal arts or liberal education, it immediately connotes a political position of some stripe or another. And being a very conservative part of the country, often that term is very problematic and often stops…the thinking stops right there. In other words, it's just a biased, biased term.

Wyatt: Steve, you were talking about a Gallup Poll.

Meredith: Yeah, there was a Gallup Poll recently where the title of the article in which it's cited is, literally, "Higher Education: Drop the Term 'Liberal Arts'". The folks at Gallup decided to poll—it's a large sample size—and they said, "You just have a branding problem."

Wyatt: This is a national poll.

Meredith: It is. "And employers actually really like what the liberal arts do, what they add to a student's education and to their life, but this terminology is killing you. This branding that you have is killing you because 'liberal' means all of the politically charged things that we've talked about, and the word 'arts' simply means," and I can say this with all due respect to my colleagues, "that you're never going to make a living." Right? I mean, "I want to be an artist" means a big sad trombone in the heads of moms and dads everywhere because, "My son is going to live in the basement forever" is what getting a degree in the arts means.

Wyatt: So liberal arts quickly brings into some people's minds—or enough people that Gallup Poll found that it was a really issue—enough people's minds that this is political and non-remunerative.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: I do know some very well paid musicians. [Laughter]

Meredith: I do too. I've always been able to make a living as a musician. In fact, when I was a department chair, I answered two questions constantly. And one of them was a mother and father or family member would bring a child to say, "We're planning to come here next year or in another couple of years, but will you please, please tell our son or daughter that they cannot make a living as a musician?" And I would always say, "No, I'm sorry, I can't. I know lots of people that make a living as a musician. I can't guarantee that yours will, but I know lots of people that make actually a fairly prosperous living as a musician or other artists."

Wyatt: So when we, on a university campus, talk about the liberal arts, we aren't talking about politics and we're not talking about painting or singing.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: Even though that might be included. We're talking about something different. We're talking about an education that is, as you mentioned Brad, liberally given, broadly given, that gives students a foundation to pursue a whole variety of careers, to develop the skills that will help them be successful. What do you think the most important skills employers are looking for that are really well delivered by what we might describe as Liberal Arts majors?

Cook: Yeah, you know I've been in industry advisory board meetings. And these are boards that we bring in an industry specialist to advise us on our majors and our curriculum, and we'll ask them as a university, "How can we best serve you and your company?" And these employers will say, "Well, you know, we need certain technical skills and we need more engineers." But very quickly, they follow up with, "We need employees that can problem solve. We need employees that can write. Employees that have oral communication skills, critical thinking. Others can look at a problem and think through these issues to problem solve. They often talk about how they need to have employees that are good a synthesizing new ideas, asking good questions, working in teams and having good ethical judgment. They want people who are curious. They want people to add value to the company. And so these are all skills that are part of a liberal education. This is the primary goal of a liberal education, yet once we call it that, it often creates consternation.

Wyatt: Yeah. I spent time going around talking to employers in Southern Utah, and I remember one visit that really quite surprised me. I was sitting in a maintenance facility at a mine because they were giving us a tour, and the person I was talking to, in answer to my question, "What can we do to help prepare people to come work for you?" said, "What I really want you to do is help people learn how to become leaders. Because everyone I hire, whether it's a custodian, a mechanic, whatever it might be, I'm hiring a future manager. And I want everybody that comes here to have these kinds of skills that you just described, Brad." I was at another mine and had the same question, and he said, "Well, we need them to know welding, that's important, but we can help them develop some expertise in welding. And we need them to be able to do this and to do that, but what we're struggling with is our maintenance people need to be able to read really complex materials. We need really smart people. We don't want any grease monkeys. We want intelligent people who can think, who can read, who can understand, who can problem solve, and at the same time can do welding and those kinds of things." That was really interesting and I think that those individuals would have considered themselves politically very conservative. But what they were asking me for was a liberally trained person. And if I would have said to them, "Oh, you want somebody trained in the liberal arts?" They would have said, "Oh, no! That's not what I said! You're confused!" [All laugh]

Cook: That's right.

Wyatt: But it takes too much time to argue about terms. We focus really on the goal. The goal is really not to convince anybody a term is right or wrong. The goal is to teach those things that lead to success and happiness for students.

Cook: Well, one way to think about this, and we talk about it here on our campus as a "T-shaped" education. We're the Thunderbirds, so it's a T-shaped education. And if you think about the shape of a "T", you have two crossbars where you've got a bar that goes across, which represents sort of the broad-based, transferable skill sets that we're trying to give to a student—and these are also the liberal education pieces that we're talking about—but that's not to diminish the disciplinary depth that employers are looking for. And so let's take accounting. People want to have accounting employees who know accounting. [Laughter] So there's a disciplinary depth there, but what industries really want are accountants that not only are disciplinary competent and deep but have these other types of skills sets that we are talking about. So one duty that I think we have as a university is to attend to both, but it's often that the broad-based T along the T axis there that there's an awful lot of confusion and the hand-wringing when we use the word. But it is I think really important for an educated person to have skill sets that are employable, but over a career, right? So we're not talking about just the first job—our responsibility as a university is to think about somebody's career over the course of their lifetime—that they have skill sets that are going to serve them well when they change careers multiple times. And the data is very clear that people will change, students will change their careers four, five, six times in a lifetime and it would be a disservice to them if we were siloing them in very narrow skill sets so that when technology changes or a workplace changes then they're going to be unemployed because they had a skill set that now a machine can take over. So we have to think about the future and one statistic that just blew me away, and this came from the Economic World Forum, would say that 65% of students entering primary school today will be employed in jobs that do not currently exist. That's 65% are going to be in jobs that we don't even know about.

Meredith: Right. How can we possibly prepare?

Cook: So how can we do that? And I think that part of that is creating these transferable skill sets, this flexibility of mind, this higher order of thinking skills that students are going to need no matter what they're working or what they're doing.

Wyatt: AAC&U (Association of American Colleges & Universities) did a survey just recently where they found that 93% of employers are more concerned—with someone their interviewing for a job—more concerned that that individual has critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, written and oral communication skills than they are with this person's major. That's really quite interesting. And I read a study recently in Forbes magazine that said only 27% of college graduates are working in a field that is related to their major.

Meredith: Wow, that's low.

Cook: That is very low.   

Wyatt: Well you know, I look at my kids and that's true for them, and it's true for me that we're working in fields different than what our majors were.

Meredith: You know, where I first heard that T-shaped student that Brad was referring to was in a book called There Is Life After College by a writer named Jeffrey Selingo—I really like his stuff, here's an ad for Jeffrey Selingo [All laugh] —but I think he's a really great writer about issues in higher education, and where he stumbled across that term was at IBM. And he went and interviewed the man that runs all of IBM's incoming employee training and they spend more than a billion dollars a year training people in the "IBM way" so that they are IBM-ready employees when they finish that initial training. And the man in charge said, "We used to look for "I-shaped" people. We used to look for the people that knew the very, very most about their particular area. And about 15 years ago, we started to shift away and now, we're almost entirely looking for T-shaped people. People who can work with others, people who have not only great skills that represent that center column of the T, but they also have some pretty significant crossbar to reach into other areas." And you're absolutely right. Your training is as an attorney, and now you're the president of a university. Did you receive undergraduate training and graduate school training that prepared you to be the president of a university? Despite the fact that they thought you were being prepared to be an attorney instead?

Wyatt: No, but there probably are some people that say, "I knew it!" [All laugh] No, I think that…

Meredith: But your undergraduate is in philosophy, so…

Wyatt: My undergraduate was in philosophy and econ, I had a dual major. But those two majors combined really helped me to analyze and to think and to be able to read things and understand people of different views and I am grateful for those majors. I've never regretted it for a minute, they've been really helpful to me.

Meredith: They made you more T-shaped.

Wyatt: Oh yeah, they were spectacular for me. But then I found myself in…when I was an attorney, I found myself always trying to, because I was doing trial work and I'd have an expert witness who was a physiologist and then I'd have an expert witness who was a physician and an expert witness that was a crime scene analyst, and I had to learn as much as I could about each of these people's professions. And it was more easily done with a broad basis.

Brad, you've been working on something that you call "badges".

Cook: Yeah, "digital badges".

Wyatt: Talk about how this shapes out this T and then what it is.

Cook: So we were really impressed at the university by a study by Burning Glass. It's a think tank that indicated that liberal arts majors in particular could make a significant more…a significant percentage more salary if they had some sort of identifier to employers that they had some sort of technical or vocational elements in addition to their liberal arts degree. So, for example, a history major having a digital badge or a certificate of sorts of somewhere between 9 and 12 credits that they could add to their CV. Often now CVs and resumes go out to employers in a digital form, and so when employers pull it up digitally, there can be this digital badge when, once clicked on, will show in addition to the degree that they have, they have 9 to 12 credits in cyber security or in social media or in technical writing or in technical communications. What that helps is augment these degrees with very specific skill sets. Now, that helps employers connect very quickly to what a student can do in addition to their degree. And I think this is a critical thing and I think it's something that the country is moving towards is something called "micro-credentialing" or "stackable credentialing" where students can stack on their…in their educational experience, competencies and skills which make them that much more marketable. But a secondary element of this that was attractive to me is I thought, "This is maybe a way in which we can actually encourage students to stay in these really valuable disciplines, like philosophy, that can give these skill sets that we talked about to students so that they aren't discouraged away from moving into some of these fields because they can do a digital badge option—within the 120 hours of their bachelor's degree, so we aren't asking them to extend time to graduation or add additional cost because they could do it within the electives of their major—but come away with a degree in philosophy, but also have a digital badge say in technical writing or in social media or one of these other…computer science or networking or something like this"…and so we're really excited that students are going to have this option. We're finding them actually more valuable to students than the minor, because the minor…for one, it has more credits that are required, but also, it's very disciplinary based. So often, liberal arts students will have a degree in English but then have a minor in something like anthropology or ethnic studies or something, and that doesn't help employers get their mind wrapped around immediately as to what this person can do when they…on the first day of the job.

Meredith: So then at SUU, we're trying to take this idea of this broadly based, liberally given version of education and then infuse it with little "mini majors" that students can opt to take that are much more specific, much more career focused—or at least skills based focused—than they might get in that broader educational context?

Cook: Yeah. And in the inverse, you think about our engineering students or our business students, they could also get badges that have a liberal arts element to them. So what we want are engineers that perhaps could get a digital badge in critical thinking or in problem solving or in technical writing or something like this because we want to have even our science, our STEM students, to have augmentation of their education to make them more productive. So it works both ways.

Meredith: Yes, I've always thought that that was the little blind spot that the big push for STEM education actually has is that, as you said, employers will say as the very second thing out of their mouth, "Yes, we need these technical skills, but we also want them to write well, we want them to present well, we also need them to have managerial skills or team building  skills and all of those things tend to be more towards the liberal arts education part of what they would do. So taking a STEM student and giving them the opportunity to be a better writer or to be a better communicator in some way, I think that's a terrific option and would make them much more interesting to a prospective employer.

You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education. Today's topic has been part one of a discussion about the importance of a liberal education. Join us again next week for part two of this same conversation with Dr. Brad Cook, the Provost of Southern Utah University. Thanks for listening, bye bye.