Bob Confer: COVID crisis shows value of a liberal arts degree
Organizations – be they businesses, non-profits, or governments – that have best weathered the shared and unique circumstances during the COVID crisis are those with creative thinkers as their leaders or in positions of responsibility within their enterprises. In many cases, they’ve made navigation of this event look easy.
What’s not easy, though, is finding people like that.
We, as a society, have driven the workforce to specialization and, in turn, narrow scopes, narrow worldviews, narrow thinking. The over-reliance on severely focused fields of study – it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about degrees in business, public administration, psychology or any number of certifications – works well in normal times: You have a job; you do it; and you do it well. But, when stuff hits the fan, just as it has and will in this crisis, you need a different sort of person to master the nuances, extremes, and ever-changing new normal – people who can break free of the reins of situational myopia.
Events like this highlight the incredible value of liberal arts degrees.
The liberal arts – the studies of the sciences, arts and humanities – had long been held in high esteem. Their studies created the foundation of education in the Western world and saw their dawn in ancient Greece, a society known for deep intellect and reasoning. The Greeks saw a desire for a universal understanding and the liberal arts promoted that.
That love affair with intellectual versatility continued for centuries. For a good portion of the United States’ early history, the liberal arts were the predominant method of study in our universities and colleges. But, after the Civil War, things changed dramatically. Those in academia capitulated to statehouses and businesses which wanted something different. They didn’t want well-rounded citizens; they wanted task-specific workers. They wanted cogs in their machine; they didn’t want someone else mastering that machine.
Higher education was transformed, as was the view of classical education. It has been the case, especially since the Second World War, that liberal arts diplomas have been reviled by misguided employers, institutions of higher education, and prospective students.
Let’s look back over the past half-century. In the academic year ending 1971, only 0.8 percent of the bachelor’s degrees conferred in the United States were for liberal arts. For the academic year ending this past May, they represented a still miniscule 2.2 percent, a previously-upward trend that has been in reversal for the past decade and a half.
That’s unfortunate given the incredible value they could bring to the table now, in this crisis. Just think about what the manager of a small business or the lawmaker in a state capital must face for the foreseeable future: How do you navigate a changing economy? How do you adjust to meet mandates or create protocols in public and personal health? What are the expectations of your customers, coworkers and community in this strange new world? What impact has this had on the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of those same people? What can we learn from other places? What can we learn from science? What can we learn from history? What will the future hold? What can we make the future be?
Those best prepared to answer those questions and weather this storm are the versatile souls who were once known as Renaissance Men or Women. Think of how well-rounded, inquisitive, reasoned and creative someone must be to navigate the nuances of COVID – they must be or become in part, an sort of expert on health, sciences and people while still holding true to their job as a businessperson or elected official.
We’ve failed as a country in the development of free thinkers – we don’t have enough of them.
I don’t know if we can achieve that, either. Despite there being 1,500 colleges and universities in this country, only 200 still consider themselves liberal arts schools. Also, most other colleges, when setting degree requirements, don’t emphasize the use of classical education in the later years of one’s program, they are more or less thrown at underclassmen as core courses then devalued thereafter.
It’s truly unfortunate, given what the liberal arts are: The central academic disciplines are philosophy, logic, linguistics, literature, history, political science, sociology, and psychology.
Those are considerably important tools in this crisis and their proper use – all at once – could pay considerable dividends to the person, the organization and the world.
And realize, too, that history is but an endless series of crises and this is just the latest. Before that, we had the Great Recession. Before that terrorism. Before that the Cold War. I could go on and on. More are going to happen. Even organizations and governments – large and small – have to deal with their own individual crises quite often.
In this one and those to come, we need special people who know a little about everything, think deeply and react appropriately and justly.
We need those people whom you once asked: “What the heck are you going to do with that degree?”
Bob Confer is a Daily News columnist and president of Confer Plastics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @bobconfer.