Challenge I: The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

manuel_davidIn the Installation Address which I delivered on September 20, 2013, I referred to three challenges that I interpret as central to the educational mission of Drury University and that have to be addressed if Drury is to be a singular university of note — the role of the liberal arts in the 21st Century, acquisition of a disposition of life, and the need to ensure a viable university in the face of changing models of higher education.  Below I offer a few amplified comments that are built on the first of these challenges.

Throughout the history of American higher education the discussion of the value of a liberal arts education has ebbed and flowed.  In 1873 the discussion centered on the essential mission of simply providing the very best that could be provided.  In the past 140 years the debate was influenced by U. S. federal policy (Morrill Act), geographic demands of regions to develop regional economies, post-industrial growth and social change, demographic needs influenced by the end of major conflicts that caused massive population demands, and social justice movements characterized by the need for wider access.  Today the debate is more likely cast in the mold of technological change, economic cycles and their impact on families, the cost of providing higher education and the long run rate of return of earning a degree. In effect, today’s debate centers more on the short term tangible rates of return which is to some extent, understandable, given the enormous uncertainty most families and students face.

A recent survey by the Lumina Foundation and the Gallup Organization reports that “… three-quarters (of Americans surveyed) said college is unaffordable.  And more than half said the quality of higher education is the same as or worse than in the past.”[1]   Other similar surveys of parents confirm that we have failed to convince parents of the value of a liberal arts education or of its affordability.[2]  On the other hand, there is ample evidence that employers clearly understand and value the outcomes associated with a liberal arts education.  How do we know this?

Just this year the Association of American Colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates published results of a broad employer survey that sought to learn “Employer Priorities and Consensus on College Learning Outcomes.”[3] The following are learning outcomes that employers agree that regardless of a student’s chosen field of study, EVERY STUDENT SHOULD ATTAIN THIS AREA OF KNOWLEDGE OR SKILL (percent of respondents agreeing with the acquisition of the learning outcome is in parenthesis):

  • Problem solving in diverse settings (91%);
  • Ethical issues/public debates important in their field (87%);
  • Direct experiences with community problem solving (86%);
  • Civic knowledge, skills, and judgment essential for contributing to the community and to our democratic society (82%);
  • Broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences (80%); and,
  • Global issues and knowledge about societies and cultures (78%).

A sampling of those learning outcomes that employers say they want colleges and universities to “PLACE MORE EMPHASIS” on include:

  • Critical thinking and analytic reasoning (82%);
  • Complex problem solving (81%); and,
  • Applied knowledge in real-world settings (78%).
  • Knowledge of science and technology (56%);

We would surmise from this that we have done a wonderful job at communicating with employers, public and private sector partners and our students on the value of the liberal arts, but we have failed to broadly influence parents and some community partners as to the value of the liberal arts to individual and collective futures.  My interpretation of these survey results and the current discussion in higher education is that we must reinforce the belief that a credential is a necessary component for employment or graduate and professional school entry, but it is not sufficient for overall long term success as one progresses through numerous career and life changes.  All of this discussion calls us to “re-articulate” and perhaps “re-translate” the language of the liberal arts for the 21st Century. The humanities lie at the root (and the heart) of the liberal arts; as we re-articulate and re-translate, we are calling for a new understanding of our ‘humanness’ in this new Century.  Indeed, most of the outcomes articulated above that are so important to employers seem to have their essential root in our ‘humanness.’

David P. Manuel


Drury University

January 20, 2014


[1] Libby Sander, “Americans Value Higher Education but Question Its Quality, National Survey Finds,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 5, 2013.

[2] Scott Jaschik, “Jobs, Value and Affirmative Action: A Survey of Parents about Change,” Inside Higher Education, March 20, 2013.

[3] “It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.”  A survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates, 2013.