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What is the importance of liberal arts in the digital age?

10/20/16 - BOSTON, MA. - Scenes from the The Liberal Arts forum with President Aoun and Lynn Pasquerella, President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in East Village on Oct. 20, 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

What’s the importance of a liberal arts education in the 21st century, in which society is becoming both increasingly global and technologically advanced? According to Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, it matters now as much as it ever has.

“Technology is a valuable tool and some level of technological competence is needed for our graduates to thrive in today’s world,” Pasquerella said Thursday night at Northeastern. “But no matter how technologically proficient one may be, grappling with the most fundamental questions of human existence is a humanistic endeavor.”

Pasquerella spoke at the opening forum for “The Liberal Arts Imperative in the Digital Age: A Higher Education Summit,” which is being held at Northeastern, in partnership with the Association of American Colleges & Universities. The summit, which is Friday, will convene leading thinkers on higher education to explore this proposition: the liberal arts matter more than ever in the 21st century, and they matter for everyone.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun and Pasquerella discussed the importance of the liberal arts today and how the field is evolving in the digital age. Earlier on Thursday Pasquerella, a philosopher and host of Northeast Public Radio’s “The Academic Minute,” had an opinion piece published in The Washington Post titled “Higher education should be a public good, not a private commodity.”

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, speaks on Thursday at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, speaks on Thursday at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Pasquerella said a liberal education prepares students to write, think, and speak with precision, coherence, and clarity; to anticipate and respond to objections; and to propose, construct, and evaluate arguments. “But most importantly,” she said, “it teaches the critical listening skills necessary to imagine what it’s like to be in the shoes of another different from oneself, a skill more important than ever.”

She underscored that these are critical 21st-century skills because they prepare people to be adaptable and flexible in the face of change, in a world in which the future jobs are yet to be determined.

Technology is a valuable tool and some level of technological competence is needed for our graduates to thrive in today’s world. But no matter how technologically proficient one may be, grappling with the most fundamental questions of human existence is a humanistic endeavor.
—Lynn Pasquerella

The Q&A between Pasquerella and Aoun, along with the audience in East Village and others watching on Facebook Live covered various topics, from the value of experiential liberal arts to online education.

Aoun brought up why more higher education institutions haven’t adopted experiential approaches to their liberal arts programs. “I say the barrier to entry is us, because in order to do it, we as faculty have to really think about the integration of the classroom experience with the world experience,” he said. He added that faculty must be ready to be questioned by students from when they return from these experiences, where in many cases they’ve broken out of their comfort zones.

Aoun also pointed to McKinsey and Company’s estimate that some 45 percent of jobs we know of today will be replaced by automation. Intelligent systems, he said, will make the jobs we know obsolete. “We have a golden opportunity to reaffirm now the necessity of having the liberal arts component,” Aoun said.

Later, an audience member noted that employers want employees with strong writing and communication skills and asked how liberal arts educators can work with employers to be advocates for the liberal arts education. Aoun pointed to Northeastern’s experiential education model, noting that from co-op placements both students and employers learn from each other.

Pasquerella closed her opening talk with a statement about higher education in the U.S.

“We’ve spent too long relying on standardized tests, asking students to answer questions for which we already know the answers,” she said. “What we need to do is present them with unscripted problems for which we desperately need the answers. We need to provide them with the skills necessary to achieve those goals. By doing so, and only by doing so, will we be able to fulfill the full promise of American higher education.”