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It’s not always about job skills

I’m sitting in a Northfield, Minnesota hotel room.


That Northfield, Minnesota. You know . . . the Jesse James last bank raid Northfield.

My daughter is on a last minute college visit trip and so besides learning more about Jesse James, we’re spending some time eating college cafeteria food, sitting in very exciting financial aid seminars, and listening to college tour guides share interesting campus anecdotes while watching them walk backwards.

And I’m becoming more and more convinced that a quality liberal arts education continues to be relevant in the 21st century. Post high school should be more than just job skills. And Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College, knows it.

During a recent speech, Trombley shares her thoughts on the power of a liberal arts education. As social studies teachers, we are a part of that liberal arts tradition. And, sometimes, I think we need to be reminded of how powerful that tradition can be:

I was recently invited to Washington DC to give a talk at the 36th Annual Fulbright Association Conference about the relevance of a liberal arts education in the 21st century economy. As the president of Pitzer College and an avid proponent of the liberal arts, this was not the first time I have received such an invitation.

I’m always pleased to have a chance to talk about the way we learn and teach, but I have to say, it’s getting increasingly difficult for me to gin up another bully pulpit defense of a well-rounded education. I mean, really, at what point did we have to start defending the value of knowledge? Of complexity? Of depth? Of communication? And frankly it strikes me as odd to be asked to defend the liberal arts in a town where the government is shut down. There are some politicians who need to do some defending, not me.

I feel a particular kinship now to those physicians who have to keep explaining that Raisinets aren’t really a fruit or that Cheetos have no nutritional value. I sympathize with financial analysts who have to make clear that there are consequences to spending more than you earn, and with elementary school teachers who have suggested that too much television inhibits the reading habits of children.

We seem to be living in a moment when self-evident truths need to be defended. One of those truths is that a liberal arts education not only creates “skill sets”; it creates wisdom and insight, spurs creativity and innovation, and inspires students to think in ways that transform the world. Imagine the iPad without that calligraphy course Steve Jobs snuck into at Reed or Disney Hall if Frank Gehry’s mother had never taken him to a concert (he had already struck out as a radio announcer, chemical engineer and truck driver); or Elon Musk’s Tesla if he hadn’t earned his degree in physics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Find the rest of her remarks here.

Because what you do makes difference. What you do is important.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. A liberal arts education prepares students to assume positions of leadership and to be flexible in the marketplace. You may acquire specific job skills while in college or after you graduate. But with a solid liberal arts education you are not limited to a particular niche, but freed and qualified for a wide range of opportunities for the rest of your life.

    November 6, 2013
    • glennw #


      Couldn’t agree more. I struggle with the idea that pushing high school freshmen into specific “career clusters” makes sense. I understand the need for preparing all sorts of students for all sorts of possibilities but I get the sense that we’re shying away from the liberal arts because those sorts of soft skills are just too hard to assess. And if we can’t put a number on something and assign some sort of grade or teacher evaluation, then we’ll just ignore it.

      So . . . I will continue to support the humanities – history and social studies included – as a important of everyone’s education k-12 and encourage my own children to pursue a liberal arts education post-high school.

      Thanks for sharing!


      November 6, 2013

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