The Liberal Arts Are Work-Force Development

Brian Taylor

July 06, 2011

Two-year colleges occupy a unique position in the national debate over the value of the liberal arts. But it's a position that is generally overlooked, if not ignored altogether.

For students who are not liberal-arts majors, the core-curriculum courses they are "forced" to take as freshmen and sophomores will probably constitute the extent of their dabbling in the liberal arts. Those who go on to study business, engineering, or computer science are unlikely, as juniors and seniors, to sign up for additional classes in literature, biology, psychology, or art appreciation.

Now consider that, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, about half of all freshmen and sophomores are enrolled at the nation's 1,300 two-year colleges, and many of those students transfer to four-year institutions. For a large percentage of people who earn bachelor's degrees, then, the liberal-arts portion of their education was acquired at a two-year college. Next, factor in all of the community-college students who enter the work force after earning two-year degrees or certificates, and whose only exposure to the liberal arts occurred in whatever core courses their programs required.

The conclusion becomes obvious: Two-year colleges are among the country's leading providers of liberal-arts education, although they seldom get credit for that role. Many Americans learn at a two-year college most of what they will ever learn—in a formal setting, at least—about writing, critical thinking, the history of our culture and civilization, the environment, and human behavior.

The reality that community colleges are actually liberal-arts institutions is at odds with the way two-year campuses are often portrayed in the media—and in government press releases—solely as engines of work-force development.

I wonder, though, if those seemingly conflicting views of the community-college mission are as mutually exclusive as they appear. Employers rank communication and analytical skills among the most important attributes they seek in new hires, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Perhaps those of us who teach those very skills at community colleges should embrace the integral role we play in preparing the nation's workers rather than rejecting the idea of work-force development as somehow beneath us.

Such a paradigm shift would have at least a couple of happy consequences. For one thing, we would be able to argue more persuasively for the importance of the liberal arts, especially in this era of draconian budget cuts and increased oversight by external bodies.

More important, this new perspective could have a positive effect on student success. If we come to see ourselves as preparing students not just for transfer but ultimately for the work force, students may be more likely to understand the relevance of the skills that we teach them and better able to use those skills for some purpose other than just getting a passing grade. That, according to Susan de la Vergne, a nationally recognized expert on preparing liberal-arts graduates for careers in non-liberal-arts fields, could give them a tremendous advantage.

"Businesses spend a lot of money on 'training' classes for their employees," she says. "Classes in business writing, presentation skills, business analysis, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and cross-cultural teamwork are deemed critical to success in today's business environment. But most are aimed at essentially backfilling the liberal arts, making up for education gaps."

Community-college faculty members are well positioned to help alleviate the need for so much "backfill." But to do so, we must reimagine the way that we teach. Here are a few suggestions that might help make our courses more practical, relevant, and useful for non-liberal-arts majors.

Require lots of writing. As the management guru Peter Drucker argued, communication is the one skill required of all professionals, regardless of field. "As soon as you take one step up the career ladder," he said, "your effectiveness depends on your ability to communicate your thoughts in writing and in speaking." Of course, the larger the organization, the more likely that the bulk of that communicating will involve writing. That has been true for years, but never more so than today, when practically every white-collar (or no-collar) worker in the country begins the day by checking and responding to e-mail.

Meanwhile, the recent landmark book Academically Adrift found that half of the students the authors surveyed had taken fewer than five courses that required 20 pages or more of writing. So in a world where degreed professionals are required to write more and more, apparently our institutions of higher education are asking students to write less and less.

Is there something wrong with this picture?

Clearly, one of the best things we can do for students is to require them to write—a lot. I understand that some faculty members teach large sections and can't grade four or five essays from each of their many students. But professors who administer nothing but multiple-choice tests are shortchanging their students. Instructors can assign and grade at least one or two writing assignments, or perhaps include a short essay as part of each test. They can also create writing assignments that don't have to be graded, in the traditional sense, such as journal entries and online posts. Any writing is better than none at all, and writing that will be evaluated (if not graded) by peers may be the most useful of all.

Focus on critical thinking. A common complaint of employers, as reflected in the NACE survey, is that many workers have difficulty thinking for themselves. They may be thoroughly trained, having mastered all of the concepts in the textbooks, but, inevitably, situations arise that weren't covered in the books. When that happens, the ability to think critically, independently, and creatively becomes indispensable. Too many workers lack that ability, perhaps because, as Academically Adrift suggests, we're not emphasizing it enough in our college classrooms.

Sure, we've all had the "critical thinking" mantra drilled into our heads. But has it stuck? How many of us actually require our students to analyze material in an in-depth way (as opposed to providing them with convenient study sheets)? How many of us require them to draw inferences, make connections, reach and defend conclusions? Our liberal-arts courses are the ideal places to teach those cognitive skills that students need to be successful in the workplace. In fact, teaching that kind of deep thinking should the hallmark of every liberal-arts course. That's what liberal-arts courses do best.

Bring the real world into the classroom. Another strategy we can adopt, if we want our courses to be more relevant, is to make our class discussions, case studies, experiments, and assignments as real-world-based as possible.

For example, in my composition courses, I not only allow students to choose their own essay topics, but I also encourage them to write about issues related to their prospective majors. I also assign reading (in addition to the old textbook standbys) from newspapers, popular magazines, even the Internet. Last semester I taught writing using an essay from Yahoo! on improving credit scores.

We should also emphasize problem-solving in our assignments and class activities. For research papers, I require students to identify a specific problem within the field they plan to enter and then explore various solutions. That's a very practical form of critical thinking.

Make the connection. Take advantage of every opportunity to connect what students are doing in class with what they will be doing some day as employees.

My students hear the term "the real world" so much that, by the middle of the term, they're starting to roll their eyes. But it's important for them to understand that the work we're doing now in class isn't just a series of meaningless exercises, another set of hoops for them to jump through on their way to a degree. They're going to have to do these things for real one day—describe processes, do research to find solutions, draw comparisons—and my course may be the last time anyone ever actually teaches them how.

I'm fortunate to bring a wealth of real-world experience to my teaching, as a copywriter, technical editor, and former midlevel manager. While I recognize that not all faculty members enjoy that same advantage, most should have some idea of what goes on in their fields outside of the classroom. If not, they can always import that experience by bringing in guest speakers or studying relevant essays or video clips.

As we link the knowledge and skills that we teach to the sorts of activities in which employees routinely engage, we will be providing our students with the very best kind of work-force development. In time, those students—tomorrow's taxpayers—may come to better understand the relevance of the liberal arts, as they see how our courses helped them reach their professional goals. One day they might even stop rolling their eyes.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. He blogs at and writes monthly for our community-college column. A book of his essays, "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges," has been published by the American Association of Community Colleges and the Community College Press.