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Investing in Arts Education

Liberal Education and Lessons From COVID-19

Higher education has experienced a crisis in confidence over the past several years, with an increasingly skeptical public raising concerns that range from issues of access and affordability and charges that campuses are spaces of left-leaning political bias to fears that colleges and universities are failing to teach students 21st-century skills. 

These critiques have coincided with a prevailing national rhetoric in which talk of higher education as a public good has been replaced by talk of a return on investment — tuition in exchange for jobs. It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that in the wake of financial pressures precipitated by COVID-19, a growing number of colleges and universities have begun excising arts, humanities, and social science programs, in favor of vocational and pre-professional programs regarded as singularly responding to demands for economic opportunity.

Alternative course

Instead, college leaders should be signaling a renewed and reinvigorated commitment to liberal education as essential to positioning students for success in work, citizenship, and life. Among the most profound lessons learned during this global pandemic has been that the nature and complexity of the conundrums at its center are emblematic of the types of grand challenges today’s student will inevitably encounter in the future.

Their ability to address these unscripted problems will require an education that engages students from their first to their final semesters in developing a deeper-level understanding across subject areas, connecting knowledge to experience, and adopting a holistic approach to evidence-based problem solving that incorporates diverse, sometimes contradictory points of view. 

By emphasizing engagement with big questions, liberal education nurtures a wide range of intellectual and practical skills —  inquiry and analysis; critical and creative thinking; written and oral communication; teamwork and problem solving; and quantitative, information, scientific, and technological literacies. As it turns out, these are the very skills and competencies that employers most value. If the learning outcomes of a liberal education correspond to the proficiencies required for the workplace of today and tomorrow — as educators and employers agree they do — then liberal education can unleash the potential of those otherwise most likely to be excluded from full participation in economic life. 

Moreover, at a time of increasing polarization and partisanship across the country and around the world, the skills fostered by liberal education — including the capacity to discern the truth, speak across differences, to be mindful of the dangers of ideological filtering, and engage in deliberation with respect to competing arguments and viewpoints — are more critical than ever to safeguarding our democracy.

In a society marked by deep and persistent disparities based on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, liberal education offers the best means to the democratic end of universal access to opportunity. Ultimately, the distinctively American tradition of liberal education aims to empower graduates to be informed and responsible global citizens and inspire them to pursue a course of lifelong learning that far exceeds the bounds of any curricular journey. Fulfilling the promise of American higher education requires that all students, at colleges and universities of every type and size, have this opportunity.  

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