The Liberal Arts are not the past. They are the future.

This past weekend, I had the good fortune of attending the Carleton Alumni Volunteer Experience (CAVE). For 3 days, I worked with 300 highly-engaged alumni spanning 60+ years to help make Carleton a better place.

A major focus was on declining give rates from young alumni. It seems that across the country, young people are falling out of love with their liberal arts educations. Most alumni grievances can be broken down into a couple buckets.

  1. The idea of giving back to the college while paying off student loans is preposterous.
  2. I don’t agree with how the college handled certain social issues
  3. I don’t think my $5 donation will make a difference.

All those responses are valid and the college has responses to all of them. However, there seems to be a new trend emerging amongst recent graduates. Young people graduating from liberal arts colleges do not feel like they are adequately prepared for the workforce.

Liberal arts colleges have come under fire in recent years for not giving graduates the technical skills they need to succeed in modern jobs. Economics majors eager to begin a career in finance do not have access to accounting courses. There is constant chatter about how studying English, Sociology and Religion is tantamount to becoming a barista after college. How can those subjects possibly be applied to anything outside of academia?

I would argue that it’s not about applying the content you learned in the classroom. It’s about using the framework, the ability to think and the thirst for new knowledge that you develop in school. In the 3 years of building a tech startup, I have not used any of the regression analysis I learned in econometrics. But I did apply the “I don’t get it so I’ll figure it out” mentality to learn how to raise funding rounds, acquire users and build scalable enterprise technology. Startups are tough and 9/10 of them fail. That pales in comparison to the 36/100 (class average) I got on my first Price Theory (Intermediate Microeconomics) midterm with Jenny Wahl. I recently met with a Carleton Religion major turned hedge fund manager named John Youngblood who said it best. “Any Carleton student can learn the financial modeling skills they need to succeed at an investment bank within a couple weeks, if not a couple days.” Liberal arts majors know nothing, therefore they can learn anything.

School has historically been a one-dimensional lecture system where students listen to a teacher speak. We have been taught that knowledge is power and that we should accumulate as much knowledge as possible. But with the advent of smartphones, Google and other information sharing platforms, the way young people learn has changed. They have the world’s crowdsourced encyclopedia at their fingertips, putting them seconds away from any answer they could possibly want. As the world becomes more open sourced, success becomes less about who can retain the most information and more about who can apply that information in creative new ways. Distributed and collaborative learning, which emphasizes mindfulness, empathy and critical thinking skills, is the future of education.

We need to make students aware of the career opportunities available to them after graduation. Colleges should be helping students discover career opportunities where they can apply their intellectual curiosity and out of the box thinking while developing their respective skillsets. Students should be given the opportunities to work in collaborative environments with alumni mentors from similar backgrounds. Career placement offices should not be in the business of helping students find internships and jobs. They should be helping young people find their future selves, connecting them with alumni who have paved a path in industry. Alumni are the solution to campus recruiting and they genuinely want to help.

Students should also be learning the soft skills necessary to succeed in the professional world. To be clear, soft skills are not the ability to shake hands and collect business cards at networking events. Soft skills are an empathetic way of engaging with others that ultimately result in meaningful relationships. Ironically, liberal arts colleges have been fostering these soft skills all along. By creating remote 2,000 person communities, colleges have built the infrastructure for collisions between students of dramatically different races, genders and social classes. These collisions result in the sharing of new ideas and the creation of new ones. They ultimately create global citizens positioned to impact positive change upon the world.

My experience at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota profoundly changed my worldview. It made me more attuned to social issues, taught me to be environmentally conscious and introduced me to cultures outside the SoCal Asian bubble. But most importantly, it exposed me to incredible people who inspire me everyday to make a positive impact on society.

I am bullish on the future of liberal arts and would love to hear your thoughts below. Will do my best to respond to all comments!

Originally published August 21, 2018
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/liberal-arts-past-future-philip-xiao/

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