I hope that by now the theme of these blogs has emerged. A college degree earned at the end of the college education is the culmination of a transformational process. When it works best, this transformational process should create a new trajectory for the individual’s future. And while I come from a practical and applied discipline in business, marketing, I believe the indispensable foundation to this process is the core liberal arts courses or what some programs call the general education program.
Regardless of the name, these broad based and multidisciplinary courses are an essential ingredient to the transformational process. As I will elaborate upon below, these courses influence multiple facets of the individual’s development as they pursue becoming ‘college educated.’ First, the liberal arts education forms the historic foundation of what is known as a college education. Therefore, in that sense, these courses provide a common link to what is considered a college degree. Another benefit of these multidisciplinary courses is to introduce students to a breadth of knowledge, and one these subjects might become their passion and major. Beyond a breadth of knowledge, the courses also form a foundation about lifelong learning both in process sense and in developing a quest or thirst for new understandings. Each of the above outcomes provides a compelling argument for the liberal arts education but when considered in their whole, these outcomes provide the rationale for what I refer to as an indispensable foundation.
As I expand on these positive outcomes, I will begin with the history of college education. So far, in these articles’ I have used the United States version or definition of College or University interchangeably. That may not be appropriate as we discuss the origins of higher education, which also has been referred to in by others cultures as tertiary education. Tertiary is third level education or beyond secondary education. In some part of the world, this tertiary education is limited to University education while others refer to both University and College. Therefore, we will try to review only the origins and history of third level higher education, which of course would assume the existence of secondary education.
While others have useful arguments about ‘higher’ education developing differently in other cultures, the origins of tertiary education with a liberal arts component is best traced to the European institutions that evolved out of cathedral or monastic schools between 11th and 14th centuries. These institutions existed for the study of the Arts as well as the higher disciplines of Theology, Law, and Medicine. The Arts encompassed the seven disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, which would become the foundation of the modern Liberal Arts education. There are of course different configurations depending upon the institution but the core disciplines remain essentially the same but with the added learning outcomes of intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. And the benefit of this continuity is that today’s students are uniquely connected to the students from hundreds of years ago as each studied these core disciplines as they all strived to earn their collegiate credentials. An expectation and experience endures over the centuries of what it means to be collegiately educated.
Some of the above intellectual and practical skills develop as outcomes of learning in depth the content knowledge of courses such as calculus or chemistry. This, of course, is the second benefit of the liberal arts component of college. However, learning the above skills also develops perseverance in learning as students move through courses or disciplines that do not engage or interest them. Often their learning is how to develop intrinsic motivation based on persevering in order to achieve an ultimate goal. Rare is the collegiate student that has not privately or publicly complained, “why do I have to learn this, I’ll never use it in real life?” about some subject or two. Only later, will they find the usefulness or perhaps realize that the process of learning as a skill unto itself was enhanced by ‘slogging’ through the course.
Of course, moving through the breadth of courses also helps the student explore and perhaps find their life ambition. At my institution, over fifty percent of the students in my discipline change their declared entry major at least once. That is exactly as it should be. Expecting an 18-year-old student to understand their life goals is unrealistic. They often have not even had the exposure during the secondary stage of their education to the breadth of opportunities. Similarly, these students have limited exposure to the experts in these various disciplines. These experts are the exemplars of that discipline that can appropriately convey the content and future of the discipline.
So, before we even get to the expertise development provided by a collegiate education, we have a compelling argument about the transformational nature the general education provides. A process vetted by hundreds of years. This general or liberal arts education changes the student, hones intellectual skills, and potentially helps sort through majors and career opportunities. It is for these reasons that as part of the collegiate experience and the collegiate education that I deem the liberal arts component indispensable.
College Educations: Transforming Society
There is a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson that goes something like "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." The actuality is that Mr. Jefferson apparently never said those exact words. However, it a perverse way the fact that I know he did note use those words and the fact that I know he actually wrote in a letter to Charles Yancey an argument for public education, including university. The exact words about democracy and education were, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.” Moreover, it is not that I ever knew this quote from my education.
Rather, this is an example of the outcome of my university education. My professor insisted that I needed to be curious and skeptical. It was impressed upon me to seek out the source of knowledge myself and not rely on others opinions or conjectures. Further, I was educated on how to conduct that original research such that I could find the original letter to Mr. Yancey from Mr. Jefferson and read the quote and the context. This letter is an interesting read as are most of Mr. Jefferson’s letters but that is an aside.
Now I need to be clear, I was not a history major though I am a history buff. I was not a Political Science major either though I took the LSAT for fun one time. Nope, I was a statistics major. However, I received the basics of a liberal arts education that formed the foundation of my critical thinking skills as well as my research skills. To Mr. Jefferson, this training was essential for democracy otherwise, any government’s propensity was to erode the liberty and property of the people. Therefore, that alone might seem enough ‘value’ of college education to society. However, I would argue there is more.
An economic impact and multiplier develops from college education on the macro level. The evidence seems compelling. In 2003, Sianesi and Reenen concluded in their article in the Journal of Economic Surveys, that each year of University education increased overall GDP by 3 to 6% but also increased the rate of growth in GDP in the United Kingdom. The research has built on these findings to conclude that it is not just attendance but the quality of the education that leads to the “strong evidence that the cognitive skills of the population - rather than mere school attainment - are powerfully related to individual earnings, to the distribution of income, and to economic growth.” Page 1 (2008) Hanushek and Woessmann, World Bank Working Paper 4122. These are just two of literally hundreds of papers that empirically demonstrate that college or university education accelerates economic development.
It is apparent that University educations transform the individual and through the individual their society. For over 200 years, the foundation of democracy has had education as a pillar. In addition, for almost as long, the innovation and drive that lead to economic prosperity has come from the same source. In the next post, we begin looking at the actual mechanisms that leads to a university education.