Before you let out an exasperated sigh, I am not questioning the value of liberal arts – there are plenty of other sources that argue the “so what” well (i.e. the Phi Beta Kappa Society toolkit, CIC’s liberal arts research and data, etc.). Here’s what I want to ask: Who cares about liberal arts?
The short answer is plenty of people – especially those who work in higher ed. We know the term “liberal arts” is great shorthand for a long list of benefits. We know liberal arts encourages students to look at a problem from a variety of perspectives. We know liberal arts sets a student up a for a successful career. We know liberal arts prepares students for a variety of industries including those in science or technology. Unfortunately, the short answer ignores that prospective students don’t even know what liberal arts means.
In recent interviews with high school students, I cringed as I heard them say:
- “I’m liberal, so I want to go to a liberal arts college.”
- “I would like to attend a liberal arts college because I am really into the arts.”
- “I would like to take liberal arts courses, but I don’t want to major in it.”
I empathize with these high school students. I don’t know—and don’t care to know—anything about computer processors. But when I recently purchased a new laptop, I needed to understand why computer processors mattered to me. I followed steps similar to those of prospective students searching for a college. I looked at rating and reviews. I read computer geek blogs. I asked myself questions like: What is a processor? Why should I care about that? As I type this on my new laptop, I have to admit that I still cannot tell you the difference between an Intel Core M or Intel Core i7—and please don’t ask me to describe the value of a processor. I would probably make a computer professional cringe.
Looking back, I appreciate that computer companies made it easy for me to purchase a laptop without understanding their jargon. Best Buy started off with questions like what is most important in your next laptop?. Lenovo let me sort by usage (high performance, students, home office, small business, entertainment, or gaming). Apple gave me fun quick descriptions: “Light. Years ahead”; “More power behind every pixel”; or “All the power you want. All day long.” I didn’t see any mention of processors at the beginning of my search. I only found those terms as I moved further into my search process.
I want to challenge you to take a page out of the laptop companies’ marketing book. Don’t ban the term liberal arts from communications or give up the campaign for liberal arts. Computer companies still explain the types of processor, and Intel still has prevalent marketing campaigns demonstrating how their products create “amazing human experiences.” Rather, start the conversation by communicating what makes your institution distinct and the benefits of your educational experience. Explain how prospective students will take a wide range of classes allowing them to solve complex problems. Show them how your alumni have successful careers in a variety of industries. Talk to students in the terminology they care about and save the confusing language for later.