Why a liberal arts education works and how it could be better

One president's take on how to best prepare students for the world

Higher education must help students find both meaning in life and a paycheck in their pockets by combining liberal arts education with technical and experiential learning, Northeastern University President Jospeh Aoun argues in the Washington Post's "Grade Point" blog.

Aoun's blog post reviewed Fareed Zakaria's book, "In Defense of the Liberal Arts," applauding the author's decision to praise liberal arts education. According to Zakaria, the liberal arts teach students to:

  • Write, forcing them to "make choices" and clarify ideas;
  • Speak, a necessary skill for job interviews and workplace presentations; and
  • Learn independently through reading books.

"Technical competencies are constantly being supplanted by new knowledge, but these skills remain eternal," writes Aoun.

In Aoun's words, Zakaria suggests colleges and universities put students through "a sort of academics 'cross-training' that exercises a student's different modes of thinking." He notes liberal arts students must improve their scientific literacy, but pushes harder for STEM students to study the humanities.

College president: Why the tech industry needs liberal arts graduates

Aoun calls this approach "New Literacy," an integration of broad concepts and quantitative and technical content. In this integrated model, a history student would leverage big data to pinpoint when beliefs, words, and concepts key to a social movement began to appear.

However, Aoun thinks Zakaria's book does not go far enough, and in his Washington Post article, pushes liberal arts programs to adopt more experiential learning. Leaving "the shelter of the classroom" pushes students to apply lessons in the real world, explore their strengths and interests, and better understand concepts, Aoun suggests. It "teaches students who they are, and how to navigate the reality of their lives and careers," he adds. 

If a liberal arts education "were enriched by these components routinely [it] would require no defense at all," Aoun concludes (Aoun, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 5/4).

The takeaway: Higher education must combine technical and liberal arts lessons, along with experiential learning to fully prepare students for the world, one university president argues in the Washington Post's "Grade Point" blog.

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