The Hechinger Report

OPINION: Embracing the uncertain, scary future — with a liberal arts degree

 

Can you predict the future? Flying cars, miniature nuclear power plants in every home and a world without disease are daring predictions that missed the mark — and still appear unlikely in the near future.

Our ability to know what the future will be like in 10 years, much less 50 years, is limited. The unknown impacts of human ingenuity, climate change and demographic shifts in an increasingly global world, among myriad other forces, ensures that the future will be unpredictable.

For today’s young people, some of whom will live to see the 22nd century, what is the best way to prepare? One possibility is to throw your hands in the air and let the future come, whatever form it might take. Since it is unknown, why prepare?

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Another is to be fearful and try to insulate ourselves from the unknown future, a tactic that rarely works. Yet another is to grasp for a specific direction and a bit of certainty, which might lead one to invest in, say, preparing for a specific career. The 18-year-old me approaching the world this way would have tried to prepare for a life creating cover art for music albums. Little did I know how the world might change and how rapidly that kind of career would disappear.

A better approach is to get ready for the future by embracing the reality that the future is fundamentally uncertain, and acquire skills that help one adapt and respond to the unknown challenges just over the horizon. In fact, there is such an approach. It is a liberal arts education, a great and rewarding investment for students who pursue it.

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The goals of a liberal arts education are manifold. One central goal is to teach students a timeless set of skills that give them the opportunity to evolve and adapt as the world changes.

Students studying history or sociology or chemistry learn some specific information about a subject but, in a broader sense, those subjects are merely conduits through which students learn even more important non-subject-specific skills like writing, problem-solving, analytic thinking, oral communication, creative expression and more.

Making unexpected connections, discerning the merits of an argument, finding patterns and dealing with ambiguity while focusing on a goal are some of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education.

Liberal arts students learn about the breadth of the world and the ideas that have been central to our understanding of humanity and the world around us. Those skills enhance our ability to adapt to the future by widening our view of the world and increasing our capacity to handle complex and ill-defined problems and situations.

Employers consistently say that they are looking for employees who can analyze complex, multifaceted problems, are creative and innovative, have good communication skills, are willing to learn, work well in team settings with a variety of people, see the larger setting in which decisions are made, and understand the ethical dimension of decisions and interactions.

Corporations know that their employees will need to grapple with situations in which these skills are valuable, stalwarts of modern liberal arts education. As dean of a liberal arts college, I work with faculty to design curricula that expose students to the newest topics as well as subjects with long and deep histories. My goals as a dean and the hopes of employers dovetail in those curricula in important and essential ways that benefit students.

Though part of me wishes I had been able to spend my life putting intriguing art and images on the packaging of popular music albums, it is clear in retrospect that it would have been a poor life choice to prepare for such a narrow future. The broad liberal education of my undergraduate training prepared me for work and life opportunities that I could not have imagined when I was 18. The world of today is different from the one I grew up in, and my education has given me the ability to appreciate those things that are new as well as the worldly elements that have been, and will continue to be, timeless.

A liberal arts degree provides skills and assets that make uncertainty something that can be embraced. That is the advantage of a liberal arts education, which leads a classics major to be successful at a pharmaceutical company or a physics major to become a leading figure in a law firm. Our students spend their lives doing things that they never anticipated and find opportunities that others didn’t see.

This story about higher education and the liberal arts was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Karl Voss is the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.