Interdisciplinarity and the career value of the liberal arts
A new humanities-based major focused on how global commerce, businesses, and societies shape one another points the way forward, says Karen E. Spierling.
Johann Neem’s recent call to abolish the business major rings true in many ways, especially for liberal arts colleges.
In his latest book, What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform, the professor of history at Western Washington University argues that a college education should leave a signature impression on character, inculcating thoughtful and intellectually rigorous interpretations of the world. Business may be the most popular major in the US, but it fails this test, he says.
I might call for my own institution to abolish our business major, if we had one. But we don’t. Yet still we are swept up in the same “crisis of the liberal arts” as schools that are frantically jumping on the business bandwagon.
As a historian, I am certain that clinging to hopes of returning to some bygone academic era when “pure” intellectual pursuits reigned supreme is not only foolish but misremembers the past. I am also certain that turning our educational approaches upside down based on a current trend is not an effective approach, either. But ranting against the tyranny of the business major is not enough.
In an age of economic anxiety and uncertainty, we must illustrate more effectively how the liberal arts can connect with students’ plans for the future. This absolutely does not mean killing off disciplinary departments. But it does mean thinking creatively about how to combine their strengths to prepare our students for lives of civic engagement, personal growth and, yes, productive careers.
This kind of talk can provoke deep anxiety among humanities faculty. We were trained by research scholars to be research scholars. We spent many years mastering the vocabulary and the intellectual approaches of our disciplines. And many of us internalized the notion that to apply our knowledge to solving worldly and, especially, money-related problems is to betray our profession.
Somewhere along the line, many of us accepted that our talents are limited to academia and that forming productive connections with the world beyond is, at worst, enraging and, at best, futile. The world will never value the kind of critical thinking we do about texts and evidence, so some of us do our best to ignore that world.
This is all, of course, a bit overstated. But maybe only a bit.
“In an age of economic anxiety and uncertainty, we must illustrate more effectively how the liberal arts can connect with students’ plans for the future.”
Solving the liberal arts crisis requires getting faculty comfortable with trying new strategies and vocabularies. Perhaps most crucially, it means encouraging them to reach across boundaries and embrace the creative thinking stoked by new connections. It also means persuading the non-academics, both across campus and beyond, that academic pursuits remain at the core of a college’s purpose, and that collaborating with faculty is both possible and worthwhile.
Denison University, we are doing this in a variety of ways. One is our new global commerce major, of which I am director. Grounded in the liberal arts, this major aims to give students the tools to think about how global commerce, businesses and societies shape one another, by drawing on a range of disciplines and balancing critical thinking with discussing practical applications (bolstered by intentionally designed co-curricular experiences). Students construct an individualized combination of courses from across the humanities, arts and social sciences – taught by existing faculty – to understand the social and cultural contexts of a selected global region.
Perfecting the program has been a trial-and-error process, just as any start-up experience is. But after three full years of classes, four key principles have emerged.
The first is to keep faculty in control. This may strike fear into the hearts of administrators, but if a college wants to build new programs (or highlight existing ones) that resonate with its mission and academic values, faculty must be driving the bus.
Those faculty, for their part, must be willing to think about how to use resources beyond campus to their own educational ends, rather than fearing the presence of outsiders in their classrooms. As long as clear pedagogical and intellectual goals are maintained, our experience is that connections with new people and ideas invigorate both program and instructor.
Second, we must dismantle campus silos – and not just the disciplinary ones. I now work regularly with administrators in our career office and our center for innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as those involved in off-campus programming, institutional advancement and communications. This is crucial to building a solid foundation for the global commerce major and ensuring its staying power.
A third principle is to recognize the value of our own pedagogical knowledge. It is not mere lip service to say that the liberal arts train students to be effective thinkers, analysts and decision-makers in a wide variety of careers. Faculty can be skittish about making these connections explicit, yet many of the concepts that other professions have trendy phrases for – “design thinking”, for example – are skills that we employ every time we design a syllabus or plan a class.
Finally, think co-curricular, not extracurricular. Co-curricular elements of our global commerce program range from “B-ready” workshops on topics such as Excel and marketing to an executive speaker series that allows students to exchange ideas with experienced professionals in small group settings. They learn that this programming is an integral part of their major experience, not an “extra” that is less (or more) important than classwork.
Articulating and demonstrating the rich value of a liberal arts education – for careers in business and everything else – is not the job only of college leaders, or staff in career centers and communications offices. It is everybody’s business. And we must work together to do it well.
Karen E. Spierling is director of global commerce, associate professor of history and inaugural John and Heath Faraci Endowed Professor at Denison University, Ohio.