How is education in the liberal arts changing—and why?
Liberal arts education is changing in situations of desperation, in reaction to financial pressures. For small liberal arts colleges across the country and also liberal arts programs at larger universities, many of them are in financial crisis—especially now amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In those situations, often there are decisions being made by administrators who are thinking in terms of very short-term questions. For instance, which classes are filling up the fastest? What’s making us the most money?
For a long time now, we’ve seen business majors and more technical majors growing at large schools. So, from my point of view, I think part of the crisis is fabricated by discussion outside of the liberal arts by business and tech people. There’s this myth about wealthy entrepreneurs who dropped out of college and didn’t need any kind of fancy education to make millions of dollars.
On top of that, there’s been this big push to say that everyone needs to go to college, and now we’re rebalancing that as a nation and saying there are also really great things about vocational training. They’re saying the only thing that’s necessary about a college degree is making sure you’re training for a career. And those two conversations are getting mixed up together.
I think the crisis for the liberal arts is that we got behind in that argument. And for decades, liberal arts programs just assumed that their value was obvious. Now we’re trying to play catch-up when the other side of the conversation is already pretty well developed.
Have you noticed shifting areas of interest in Denison students?
I don’t think they’re coming in with a different sense of a particular degree. I think there definitely is greater anxiety when they come in the door about feeling confident they’ll be career-ready when they leave. It’s not so much that suddenly no students are interested in history, for example, and they’re all interested in business. It’s more that students are looking for a framework to help them understand what’s important about what they’re learning and experiencing, to help them understand how it all fits together.
How are majors, like global commerce, integrated into the liberal arts at Denison?
We’re trying to make sure that our students are really grounded in what Denison is already strong at. With global commerce, we made the deliberate decision not to incorporate a business major or minor into our curriculum. We decided to build a major around the liberal arts, where students talk explicitly about how different ways of thinking and different disciplines, such as history, economics, and anthropology, help them understand how trade and commerce operates. We’re very intentional about not having marketing or management classes.
We built the major to have core courses that are interdisciplinary. We have courses that are taught by professors from across different humanities departments. We have a philosopher who teaches some classes, a literature professor, an anthropologist, and a couple of historians. So the students aren’t reading business textbooks. They’re reading philosophy texts about ethics and society, or they’re looking at case studies of different periods of expansion of globalization in history, or talking about how organizational culture within companies can vary from one country to another. They are all different approaches to thinking about how a particular context, place, or society with particular cultural traditions shapes the way business gets done, and who has access to that business and those resources.
Every global commerce major also designs a global focus, which means they have to come up with six courses, from across campus, that all relate to different aspects of a particular region of the globe. So each student has a completely different combination of courses from departments such as history, economics, religion, women’s & gender studies, and political science.
Can you share examples of co-curricular experiences that are the core of the program?
Maybe the best example is the senior capstone that all global commerce majors have to take. The goal of the course is to give the students a chance to develop an eight- to 10-week team project, in which they identify a problem they want to solve, identify a product or service that can address that problem and where they want to market it. They present it to professors and to professionals from the Columbus community. This year we also worked closely with the Red Frame Lab, which is an entrepreneurial coaching and makerspace lab, to help students get ready for their presentations.
Each semester we’ve also had an alum, who is at an executive level within a company, put together a case study for the students and work with them for a week. This past semester, it was about international pharmaceuticals and distribution. In tandem with that, global commerce majors have to take two semesters of foreign language at the intermediate or advanced level. Plus, 70 to 80 percent of our global commerce majors do a semester abroad as part of their off-campus requirement.
Why is learning through the lens of the liberal arts still valuable or perhaps even more valuable in career fields today?
The core of a liberal arts education is not prioritizing any one specialization, and the challenge of a liberal arts education is that your brain has to be constantly changing. Literally, as you move from one class to another during your day, your brain has to be adapting to different ways of thinking about knowledge and interpreting information, and then, communicating the importance of that information and connecting with other people. There’s no other education that connects the dots that way, that thoroughly.
So if you’re trained as an engineer, there are certain things, obviously, that you can do really well. But in terms of making decisions about where and when to do those things, and the impact of those things, a liberal arts education gives you the ability to think beyond yourself, and really break apart all of the different factors you need to consider.
I think this is where clearly articulating the value of a liberal arts education is really important. It’s not that we need to completely change students’ education, but we need to be much more explicit about explaining to students how they can use these ways of thinking when they leave.