Liberal Arts Education and the Future of Work


Since May 2018, Harvard Business School’s project, Managing the Future of Work, is shining a light on six forces currently redefining the nature of work in the United States as well as in many other advanced and emerging economies.

Co-chaired by faculty members Professor Joseph Fuller and Professor William R. Kerr, the project team has been running a podcast on relevant topics concerning the future of work since May 2018, and in view of recent events, focused on the dramatic impacts of Covid-19 since April 2020.

Today, global firms are facing unprecedented challenges adapting to a multitude of changing factors in an increasingly complex world. Among factors they must take into accounts are technological trends and advances, an unstable workforce, employment skills gap, global talent access and utilization, extended life expectancy, or spatial tensions between leading urban centers and rural areas.

These trends also put pressure on secondary and higher education, and pose a question: How do we prepare students with the resilience and bravery they will need in life?

Skills gap

Nowadays, knowledge or professional skills are no longer the main concern. Instead, there is a gap in foundational competencies and soft skills, which are key to motivating life-long, effective learning.

The Managing the Future of Work project lists the skills needed most among fresh graduates, but that come in short supply even for those coming from leading colleges. In order of importance:

– Written and verbal communication skills

– Teamwork, negotiation, partner relationship management competencies

– Lateral thinking: creative, critical thinking, self-learning competencies

– Professionalism: etiquette, personal branding

– Leadership skills: supervising, mentoring and project management

– Character traits: ethical, independent, trustworthy

Furthermore, fresh graduates have changed attitudes towards work. They demand high salaries and other privileges such as flexible working time, or working from home, salary and bonus raises; on the other hand, their performance is lower. They are less dedicated to work and the rate of quitting is high. Many graduates are reluctant to get deeply engaged in work and explore their potential to be the best version of themselves.

Dr. Nguyễn Chí Hiếu at a training workshop on teaching methods for educators from across the country at Fulbright University Vietnam (PEN 2019)

In a 2002 study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), authors Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger concluded: “Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than rejected applicants who attend less selective schools.”

In a 2014 survey by Gallup measuring how business leaders and the American public view the state and value of higher education, just 14 percent of Americans – and only 11 percent of business leaders – strongly agreed that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace.

Even more concerning, around half of college graduates in the US are either unemployed or doing jobs that high school graduates can do. In terms of competencies, attitude and character traits, college graduates are not better off than those graduating from high schools or vocational training schools.

Which path leads to success?

Nevertheless, 94 percent of American adults still believe strongly in the value of higher education diplomas, perceptions failing to catch up with fast changing realities. Indeed, bachelor’s degree holders may not find it easy to open the heavy doors to their future. Their path to success may be a long and winding road instead.

Policy institutions, research academies, organizations and individuals involved in shaping the future of the U.S. educational system are joining the race to find out the answer to these questions: Where will liberal arts education go? How liberal should it be, so students may be strong enough for the life ahead?

Whenever I have a chance to discuss the answers with those institutions and individuals, they focus on three aspects:

– Life-long learning competencies

– Habits of the mind

– Foundational skills

Looking at our society, educational changes must be grounded solidly, lest they be like “paint with the same brush,” shallow and ineffective. If educational investment is conducted too fast, without in-depth, foundational analysis, we incur the risk of wasted time and resources. And the more time is wasted, the more opportunities are lost for young people.

Liberal education should do four things for students: unleash, activate, collaborate, breakthrough. (One hour study at Fulbright University Vietnam)

“In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of college is to give you a strong incentive to think independently. The desire to understand the different aspects of a question, to know one aspect of another’s opinion and of other eras is the sign of an educated person. Education should not put the brain in a cabinet full of formula but should fill the brain with nutrients to constantly expand and grow. Get knowledge wherever and whenever possible. Listen to the opinions of people who are more experienced than you. And don’t let others think for you,” said James Bryant Conant, late President of Harvard University.

From the early days of liberal arts education, those who laid the foundation for this education tradition boil it down to four principles: unleash, activate, collaborate, breathrough.

Unleashing learners means they should not be trained for a certain profession before they know who they are and what they want to achieve.

To Activate learners is the opposite of rote learning. We must help them to be creative and to activate their potential, not subject them to imitation and repetition.

Learners should also learn to Collaborate with others from varied backgrounds and characters, so they may impact the world positively together. Liberal arts education should get learners used to walking in others’ shoes and cultivate diverse perspectives, a humbling perspective that encourages curiosity, empathy and growth.

Learners should also cultivate doubt. After all, challenging traditional ways of thinking is the source of innovation, allowing learners to experience Breakthroughs in the way they think, act and create.

The purpose of education is not just to land students a job after graduation. The goal is to train exceptional thinking skills, to learn and explore in a way that allows everyone a better chance to find their true passion. Because finding that calling means a lot more than the diploma of an elite school.

It is what will accompany you on the long road ahead, in a world which someday will not obsess over the names of schools, and the diplomas will not be a static certificate attesting to someone’s quality.

Liberal arts education has never been and should not be encapsulated by famous school names; it should be a sustainable, in-depth way of thinking and educational philosophy.

Tiến sĩ Nguyễn Chí Hiếu (CEO of IEG Foundation)

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