Rethinking University Education

It’s commonplace these days to hear the story of the young, bright, recent liberal arts university graduate who simply cannot find a job – let alone a good job – in her field of study. A 2012 study by Georgetown University found unemployment rates are higher among liberal arts graduates than graduates from business, engineering, and healthcare. The record-high level of student debt and the changing face of today’s job market have led to an emphasis on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – where employment prospects are better. According to a 2012 study, some of the most in-demand bachelor degree jobs are in software development, accounting, and mechanical engineering. In fact, six out of the top 10 jobs listed are technology and engineering positions.

The call for software developers – read any computer science/engineering graduate – has been especially loud thanks to Silicon Valley where the shortage of talent continues to be a concern. Over the next 10 years there will be an estimated 1.4 million computer science related jobs and only about 400,000 qualified grads. That’s 1 million jobs that will go unfilled. This deficit in talent has led to the ‘learn to code’ movement, an initiative to promote coding at all levels of education. Support for the movement has grown beyond the usual suspects, like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Marissa Mayer, to include celebrities, such as recording artist and NBA star Chris Bosh.

Political figures have also joined the movement. In 2012, then New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg pledged to learn how to code. Even President Obama has acknowledged the value of tech skills. In his 2013 State of the Union Address, Obama stressed the need to redesign the education system to better equip graduates to meet the demands of the high-tech economy and vowed to reward schools that “create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future.”

The ‘learn to code’ movement has made
it clear that technology-based skills are highly desirable and lead to gainful employment opportunities but with so much emphasis on tech skills are we at risk of losing support
for liberal arts education?

While we do need more developers, don’t we also need historians, writers, artists and religious and cultural specialists?

Liberal arts education should not be overlooked, here’s why:

Skills for Life

Unlike vocational training, a liberal arts education doesn’t train students for a specific job. Instead, it teaches students how to develop their critical thinking skills, thereby equipping them with the tools necessary to succeed in life throughout their career. Perhaps most importantly, liberal arts courses teach students how to continue learning. As Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, president of Marlboro College, wrote in The Huffington Post: “In our knowledge-based economy, the basic skill
for everyone to learn is how to keep learning. Many of the good jobs of the future don’t even exist yet.” The ability to keep learning is crucial in today’s changing job market, where employees need to be flexible and willing to learn new skills.

Problem Solvers

Liberal arts courses teach students to become knowledgeable and empathetic citizens. The complexity of today’s global problems, from online privacy to food security and terrorism, suggests that we could certainly benefit from more empathetic problem solvers. We need more people who can relate to marginalized groups and understand the nuances of culture, language, history and religion. Author, philosopher, and University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum said to The New York Times that cultivation of the imagination through the humanities is crucial to empathetic problem solving: “we need the imaginative ability to put ourselves in the positions of people different from ourselves, whether by class or race or religion or gender. The imagination is an innate gift, but it needs refinement and cultivation; this is what the humanities provide.”


Liberal arts students are encouraged to develop their creative thinking skills, the very skills we need to foster innovation. Vivek Ranadivé, CEO of TIBCO (a multibillion dollar software company), believes that a liberal arts education is more valuable than learning any trade: “The people who will succeed in more expensive labor markets like the US will be those who can think creatively and generate the ideas that will propel economic growth.” As jobs continue to be outsourced overseas, our competitive advantage lies in our ability to be innovative – and it would be wrong to assume that STEM professions are the only way to achieve economic prosperity.

Smart organizations and employers value multidisciplinary teams. Bringing people together from varied backgrounds allows for lateral thinking (the ability to solve problems through a creative and sometimes unorthodox process) and can lead to improved problem solving and the generation of new ideas.

Society needs developers and other STEM- related professionals, but we also need bright young people who can think critically, creatively and tackle problems with empathy.


This article appears in MISC Winter 2014, The Balance Issue

the author

Martha Twidale

Martha Twidale is a brand strategist at Idea Couture. She is based in Toronto, Canada.