In recent years, higher education has undergone a significant transformation. A large number of small liberal arts colleges have closed. Undergraduate majors have become more STEM-focused and aimed toward employment.
The popular myth of the liberal arts, especially in the humanities and art, is one of an elitist and impractical pursuit that creates unemployable young people saddled with unmanageable debt and doomed to a lifetime of poverty. Little wonder that parents and students alike are concerned about their future in higher education.
Yet this overly simplistic image is not accurate for many reasons—some of which are especially relevant to the Front Range Community College community. For many students in the FRCC service area—whether first-generation students or non-traditional students coming back to college after a career change—the liberal arts offer significant benefits. These advantages go far beyond a simple relationship between a degree and future employment. Let’s explore how.
A Solid Foundation for All Learning
We should begin by considering what is taught in such a curriculum. In other words, what are the liberal arts? In short, they are the study of the fundamental principles of knowledge and the ways in which we communicate that knowledge.
Any applied or technical field is dependent upon theoretical knowledge without which it cannot function. (This is true for many vocational courses of study.) This theoretical knowledge may be scientific, as in the study of physics or biology; or it could be more humanist in its orientation, as in philosophy, history or the study of art and literature. This type of knowledge provides a firm foundation for the entire field.
On the other hand, technical knowledge can change quickly, and often quite radically. We see clear examples of this in information technology. (Does anyone remember floppy disks?). Theoretical knowledge changes far less rapidly and remains fundamental to understanding how to adapt to change.
Responding to change is what the world is all about, especially for students. The student who recognizes this distinction is at a great advantage over time.
Staying Relevant in a Technological World
We live in a world where many tasks are increasingly outsourced to algorithms, artificial intelligence (A.I.), and other forms of software. Robots and automation are a constant theme in the future of manufacturing and services of all kinds, whether hard goods or even news reporting. Yet there remains a great deal of opportunity in careers that focus on the creation, interpretation, and analysis of information, especially in its relationship to human needs and desires.
In fields that require careful observation, clear comprehension, and accurate analysis of phenomena, artificial intelligence is very far away from even functioning, let alone dominating. A.I. is simply not ready to communicate its findings to an audience in a sophisticated and compelling way.
This type of complex thinking and communication is the work of the liberal arts. At institutions like FRCC, students are encouraged to develop their skills in liberal arts tasks such as writing, public speaking, visual analysis, and individual creativity.
By taking classes in history, students comprehend the profound necessity of understanding the beliefs and actions of past humans in order to comprehend the present world we live in. In philosophy, they explore ways to consider the eternal problems of ethics and separating truth from falsehood—problems that are more relevant than ever in the current era of “fake news” and social media. In the social sciences, students are introduced to theories of human nature and behavior that help them understand the ways in which cultures operate—a huge benefit in an increasingly diverse country such the USA. In a visual world mediated by phone screens, visual art and its analysis is no longer a pastime of elites but an everyday necessity and a huge economic engine. The performing arts are not merely a vehicle of personal enjoyment and expression but a critical aspect of contemporary culture in all its forms, whether via music videos or political discourse. Finally literature and writing are central to the enterprise of communicating new ideas and knowledge, influencing—as only one example—the future political direction of our powerful and active democracy.
These skills are no longer optional pursuits for an idle few, if they ever were. In the new economy, familiarity with all these skills (and mastery of many of them) are necessary for success, regardless of your occupation.
Adaptability and Responsiveness to Change
Most important is the ability to adapt to change—studying the best ways to learn about and respond to new developments—and finally, to reflect productively on this never-ending experience of learning.
FRCC wants all learners to have access to this form of knowledge, regardless of their vocational and career plans—and the college will continue to offer this type of in-depth learning environment for our students.