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OPINION: Can the liberal arts navigate poverty, diminished opportunity and robots?

"The difference between a student who understands 'why' versus 'how' "

The poor and less-educated are the portion of our population most threatened by automation and artificial intelligence, as more and more of their job prospects are disappearing.

When a recent study, “Robots Need Not Apply: How Job-Seeking Students Can Crush Their Fear of a Technology Takeover,” revealed an unmet need of employees with “soft skills,” it was more evidence that liberal-arts graduates are essential in the workforce — and especially important for those seeking to break out of a cycle of poverty and diminishing opportunities.

A college degree alone is not a guaranteed defense against being replaced by technology. Employers cited listening, attention to detail, and communication as the most desired skills they sought in new employees, in the study conducted by the educational consulting firm Cengage and the research firm Morning Consult.

Related: How colleges can help their students out-compete robots 

Colleges and universities provide gateways to the middle class for many deserving students. At Susquehanna University, where I am president, approximately 40 percent of students are first-generation college attendees, and 31 percent of our first-year class are Pell Grant recipients. We foster a skill-set that will protect our graduates from the impending obsolescence of so many of the jobs to which they would be limited without a university education.

Nearly three-quarters of employers indicated that it was challenging to find qualified employees, and only two-thirds said that colleges and universities had prepared students well for the workplace. Almost as many (72 percent) indicated that gaining workplace experience prior to graduation was the single most important thing that students can do to be competitive in today’s job market.

The fundamental message of the report is how students can make themselves “robot-proof.” The theme is surely inspired by a book of that title by Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, declaring our duty to make our students irreplaceable by technology in the era of artificial intelligence. Soft skills are an essential part of that strategy.

Related: Ten jobs that are safe from robots

The term “soft skills” arose in the development of training programs for the U.S. military in the early 1970s. These are skills and traits that are often associated with social intelligence, which the British neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey has averred is what fundamentally makes us human. In a recent blog post, Trevor Muir suggests that we start calling them “essential skills.”

The Cengage report did not differentiate the preparedness of applicants by type of academic institution. This is unfortunate because residential liberal-arts colleges focus more deeply on students’ development of these skills in their curricula and co-curricular programming. Personal and social responsibility skills are at the heart of a liberal-arts education. Our institutions are founded on the principles of whole-person education and the development of citizen-leaders who have been prepared to think critically and act ethically.

Liberal-arts students are expected to apply what they learn on our campuses to real-world experiences through rigorous internships, service-learning projects and independent research. Their applied projects are typically shaped by human factors that require careful cultivation of soft skills to be effective. From this, the most compelling components of the work often emerge.

On our campus, many students and faculty engage in “project-based learning” in which coursework is applied to a need or question from the community. Students work with community partners to develop a response or solution. Recent projects have included theater students developing new approaches to presenting sensitive material onstage, business students undertaking market research for local businesses, and environmental science students conducting watershed planning work for regional and state agencies.

Above all, we challenge our students, who represent extraordinary socioeconomic diversity, to think about why their efforts matter, why they should want to make a difference, and how they can develop successful careers that advance businesses and organizations they can care about. We help them to lift themselves up, and we prepare them to elevate their communities.

The liberal arts have always been about giving students the tools they need and instilling in them the confidence to be successful. It is the difference between a student who understands “why” versus “how.” These are the elements that are most fundamentally human and those that truly make liberal-arts graduates robot-proof.

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

Jonathan Green is the president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

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Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green is the president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. See Archive

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