Rob Rossmeissl ("Colleges increasingly shun liberal arts," The Badger Herald, 3/22/06) called attention to an issue of concern nationally and within Wisconsin. We agree that not enough attention is paid to the value and purpose of a liberal education, despite the fact that many UW students pursue baccalaureate degrees in liberal arts and science disciplines, and many professional education programs incorporate essential liberal education elements. Badger Herald readers may be interested in current efforts within the UW System to address precisely the concerns Mr. Rossmeissl raised.
We lead an initiative of the UW System and its 15 institutions called The Currency of the Liberal Arts and Sciences: Rethinking Liberal Education in Wisconsin (www.uwsa.edu/acadaff/liberalarts/index.htm). We are cooperating with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) on its Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) campaign that champions the value of a liberal education (www.aacu-edu.org/advocacy/index.cfm). AAC&U chose Wisconsin to pilot campus action and advocacy efforts of LEAP.
Mr. Rossmeissl called on universities to "expand the scope of their students' education by better promoting the liberal arts … " Examples of our efforts to do that include presentation and discussion of liberal education values in first-year courses; developing and highlighting syllabus language that emphasizes liberal education; a new annual Liberal Arts Scholarship Essay Competition, open to students across the UW System (first winners to be announced soon); and others. Through programs like campus-community dialogues, we are trying to spark public debate about the kinds of knowledge, skills and values needed for life and livelihood in an era of greater expectations in every sphere of life. Increasingly, those are seen to include traditional liberal education values such as intellectual capacities like critical thinking and analytical ability; ethical capacities; communication skills; expanded cultural, societal and scientific horizons; and democratic and global knowledge.
The value and significance of such an education is not merely the substance of educational campaigns like LEAP. There is growing consensus among national leaders that liberal education values are critical for success in a relentlessly changing knowledge-based economy and globally engaged democracy. Accrediting bodies in disciplines as diverse as business, engineering and nursing point to liberal education outcomes needed for success in these professions. Career services offices at many universities describe the interest of employers in liberal arts and sciences graduates. "Recruiting Trends, 2005-2006" (Career Services and Placement, Collegiate Employment Research Institute, Michigan State University) noted: "While employers still want business and engineering graduates, companies seeking to fill consulting, research, information management and e-commerce positions — all growing in opportunity — want to talk to all majors, particularly liberal arts graduates who know how to do research." Business leaders increasingly see a liberal education as precisely what is needed in a changing world that requires intellectual agility, ability to deal with change and ambiguity, multi-cultural competence, scientific and technological literacy, and a sense of civic and ethical responsibility.
In a recent speech to AAC&U members in Washington, D.C., Wisconsin Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton said, "We have front row seats for a seismic shift from an industrial to a knowledge economy; we must find more ways to articulate the return on education to our nation's overall wealth, to assert the public value of a liberal education in an era of global competition. … A liberal education is quickly becoming the price of admission to a 21st century knowledge economy."
These views underscore an important take-home message of the LEAP campaign: Students need not choose between a "practical" education and a liberal education. The knowledge, habits of mind and intellectual skills growing out of a liberal education are immensely practical in a modern world. Mr. Rossmeissl's liberal arts education in journalism and political science will take him far. We are quick to add that we do not regard a liberal education merely as vocational training for the 21st century. Rather, our point is that the intrinsic values of a liberal education — fostering an "examined life," for example — need not be fundamentally different than the workplace values of such an education.
Mr. Rossmeissl has helped bring attention to the kinds of learning really needed in the early 21st century. He expressed regret that "a solution to ensure the prosperity of the liberal arts is non-existent." We are guardedly more optimistic. At the same time, we recognize that as a system of higher education we have much work to do — LEAP is a 10-year-long campaign, reflecting the expected degree of necessary change and the slow pace of that change. The voices and views of students are essential in this campaign. We encourage The Badger Herald to sponsor a campus-wide, live discussion about the value and purpose of a liberal education. Members of our group would be pleased to participate in such an event, and we would encourage other UW campuses to follow suit.
Rebecca Karoff is an Academic Planner at UW System Office of Academic and Student Services and Don Christian is the Dean of Arts & Sciences at UW-Eau Claire. This editorial was written on behalf of the UW System Advisory Group on the Liberal Arts (33 professors, deans, associate deans, and other administrators, UW System and UW campuses).