#CriticalThinking #CommunicationSkills #InterculturalUnderstanding
#ProblemSolving #Ethics

These are the hashtags of higher education, the buzzwords of the liberal arts in particular. Search the website of any arts and sciences school, and you’ll find them there: the guaranteed return on your liberal arts investment. But what do these buzzwords actually mean, and do we (colleges) deliver on our promises?

Let me tell you about a few of my lifelong friends, Adam, Bettina, Liora and Phil. Adam is a senior spokesperson for Microsoft. Bettina is a successful blogger and activist on issues relating to children and food policy. Liora runs her own high-tech public relations business. Phil is vice president of project management at a company that provides cloud video services. They majored, respectively, in political science, psychology, American studies and English. None had academic training in computer science, technology, communications or business. None immediately entered their fields upon graduation because, well, those fields didn’t exist in the early 90s.

Instead, Adam worked on the Bill Clinton campaign. Bettina went to law school. Liora was an account coordinator at a marketing agency. Phil taught high school English.

So, how did they end up where they are? By the ’96 campaign, Adam envisioned new opportunities for youth outreach via something called the World Wide Web; he was dubbed the campaign’s “technology czar” and was later recruited by Microsoft. Of his career, Adam says, “A passion for ideas and the skills to ask the questions that bring focus to an opportunity are the most valuable traits anyone can have, and they are nurtured particularly by the culture of the liberal arts institution. Learn in the classroom, and then hone your skills in late night conversations with fellow students.” #criticalthinking.

Bettina left a successful career as an intellectual property attorney to work as an advocate for food labeling and children’s health issues. She notes that her blogging and web petitioning “is grounded in critical thinking and persuasive communication.” #ethics #communicationskills.

Liora, trilingual and a world traveler, built a huge client base in her early jobs, based in part on her ability to charm and connect with a diverse set of colleagues and consumers. #interculturalunderstanding.

Phil initially left teaching to take a job at Adobe, where he found both happiness and success in the opportunity to move “between lots of different areas — designing technical products, discussing customer problems and writing business plans for marketing communications.” He calls his liberal arts education the “launching pad” for his career, providing him, “a strong grounding in a variety of disciplines and the ability to quickly learn new subjects when my interests or my job demanded it.” #problemsolving.

The common theme here is imagination, without which there is no such thing as innovation. Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., describes imagination as “what you use when you meet a challenge, when you see something you want to make different.” Or, as Albert Einstein said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

“Everywhere” includes not only technology, but also business, education, design, nonprofit work, etc. — all industries where the liberal arts imagination is highly valued. Earlier this year, the British Council commissioned a report on the crucial role of humanistic study in meeting international development challenges. A 2013 survey of 318 executives at mid-to-large companies about hiring practices found that 95 percent prioritized candidates who demonstrated skills likely to contribute to workplace innovation. Those skills included critical thinking, problem solving, communication abilities (deemed more important than a student’s major by 93 percent of respondents), ethical judgment (96 percent) and intercultural understanding (96 percent). Communication though writing, scientific and social scientific problem-solving, understanding others through religion and language, the study of ethics … Someone should really build a core curriculum around these.

In a recent National Association of Colleges and Employers survey of 130 competitive colleges, Georgetown ranked seventh with regard to starting salaries of liberal arts graduates. Why do we do so well? Because, per a recent article in Forbes (echoed by pieces in The Washington Post and U.S. News), while technology improves and takes care of routine tasks, there will be an increased need for “what mortals do best: generating creating ideas and actions in a data-rich world.” This also explains why, according to another AACU survey, at peak earning potential, humanities and social science grads earn more than grads with professional and preprofessional degrees. One group has been prepared for the world that is; another has imagined the world that will be. #promiseskept.


Sue Lorenson is a senior associate dean at Georgetown College. She is one of the alternating writers for The Dean’s Desk, which appears every other Tuesday.

One Comment

  1. We actually do well because all of our graduates find a job in the consulting or investment banking industries. Not exactly the classical hallmarks of a liberal arts education

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