Reflections

Education, the Workforce and the Liberal Arts

Sister Joel Read, president emerita

I’ve been thinking lately about the current political push to better connect the workforce and education. Manufacturing has long been the heartbeat of the Wisconsin economy and it seems employers in this sector now have a difficult time finding applicants for a growing list of entry-level openings. As a result, anybody who’s anybody favors steps to better align education with workforce needs. And who can argue? When jobs go begging while the unemployment rate hovers close to seven percent, something needs fixing.

My response is a careful, “Yes, but….”

Education has many jobs to perform for society and providing skilled entry-level labor is just one of them. As much as we need to debug the connection between education and our shortage of entry-level manufacturing workers, it is every bit as important to ensure that the liberal arts are always at the core of a college degree.

When students engage in rigorous study of history, literature, philosophy, religion and the sciences, they develop abilities that are in equally high demand in today’s workforce—the abilities to think critically, communicate effectively, or consider multiple perspectives. My field, for example, was history. No one ever told me that becoming a good historian would make me a better college president, the job I held at Alverno for 35 years. But it did. And during that time I met enough business and civic leaders whose undergraduate studies as history, English and philosophy majors were equally important in readying them for the leadership challenges they faced.

There’s a standard cliché that’s often used to describe the liberal arts experience: “We teach you how to learn.” But a true liberal arts education goes beyond that. It encompasses teaching how to think critically, followed by an instilling of confidence that equips you to put thoughts into ideas, words into plans and knowledge into power.

That’s because the liberal arts are not simply bodies of knowledge, but rather ways of thinking about very complex realities. At Alverno, we believed the liberal arts are so important that, early in my term as president, our faculty members spelled out the eight abilities we expect students to learn: analysis, problem solving, communication, valuing, social interaction, effective citizenship, global awareness and aesthetic judgment. We were so serious about those expectations that we also developed ways to assess students to make sure they achieve these outcomes. These abilities and assessment methods are the backbone of the liberal arts experience we provide to students.

Alexander Meiklejohn, a noted educational leader and true liberal arts visionary, detailed the importance of student contributions to the learning path. He insisted that the major part of learning was the student’s work under the critique of a master. Although this placed much more burden on the student, he found their desire to learn was only heightened when boundaries were removed.

Alverno’s promise to each and every student is that we’ll meet them where they’re at and take them on an educational journey that leads as far as their minds will take them. Time and time again, our students excel in this limitless learning environment. In fact, we find that as students become more responsible for their own learning, they also become more motivated and self-determined.

The focus on abilities that is now the foundation of the Alverno experience was once an innovative – perhaps even radical – new idea that took time to shape and mold into a learning model that worked for all involved. Today, Alverno’s commitment to the liberal arts and the abilities they impart is an evolving model that improves over time rather than stagnates with age.

While today’s employers rightly demand technical education that is more attuned to their needs, their long-term growth may actually be more dependent on the byproducts of a liberal arts education. This is exactly what Alverno faculty envisioned when they shifted the focus from simply imparting knowledge to actually helping students acquire in-demand abilities related to lifelong learning. In this sense, Alverno continues to educate and inspire not just the next generation of workers, but the next wave of thinkers.