Liberal education and the value of “valueless” knowledge


On November 3, 2019, Fulbright University Vietnam organized its last open house of the year. A father arrived thirty minutes before the event started, and came directly to Fulbright staff to ask about the Undergraduate program, despite the event schedule specifying the whole day would be dedicated for Q&A. His concern was articulated right off the bat: “What can my kid do after graduating from Fulbright?”

A few hours later, as Provost Ian Bickford concluded his speech on Fulbright’s education model, a student timidly raised his hand to pose a question: “Should we choose to pursue liberal education at Fulbright, we will have to spend a year to attend extensive courses before choosing our majors. Would that be adequate to meet future employers’ requirements?”

Although worded differently, these two questions reflect the same worry that many share: “What must students learn to pave the way for a successful career?” This question shows a common misconception about liberal education.

To most families in Vietnam as well as in Asia, the purpose of higher education is to equip students with professional skills needed for a stable, productive occupation. As a result, top choices for college education consist of majors leading to in-demand and high-paying jobs. Those are deeply rooted in perceptions that higher education and career paths follow a linear trajectory – finance and banking majors will work as financial specialists, law majors will build careers as lawyers, or so it goes.

These assumptions obscure the many benefits of Fulbright’s first year program, where students take a variety of courses in different fields, from natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, arts to engineering before choosing more specialized majors.

Learn how to learn: the key to survival

A decade or two ago, a bachelor’s certificate with a particular focus may have been sufficient to secure long term, stable employment. However, the labor market has undergone tremendous changes since. While our nation-wide unemployment rate is relatively low at 2% (according to data from the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs), the portion of graduates not working in their respective specialty is alarmingly increasing. In 2018, only 60% of college graduates secured jobs relevant to their qualifications. Meanwhile, the economy is burgeoning, and labor demand is high. The fundamental problem, as many companies have recognized, is that qualifications are not enough, especially in highly skilled areas.

Whether we like it or not, we must admit that no matter what career you pursue, the knowledge you gained in college will become obsolete in practice eventually. Even if your work is currently within the scope of your discipline, that can change very quickly.

A recently published report predicts that 80% of jobs that will exist in 2030 have not even been invented. With the current pace of change, how can we stay relevant? What value stays constant? The answer is a learning approach that fosters adaptability, and methods to continue generating skills. The World Economic Forum has identified the top three essential skills in the 21st century workplace as complex problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. Those are also the core values of liberal education.

David Autor, economist from MIT and author of a recent research on consequences of technological change and globalization for the labor market, believes white collars who perform routine data collection, processing and analysis for insurance, banking and legal industries, are facing tough competition from automation. The highest-paid jobs, in contrast, are actually best prepared for by the American liberal education model, and require less evident competencies, such as “creativity, problem-solving, decision-making, persuasion and management”.

How can liberal education help students adapt to and take advantage of future changes in their work environment? Thomas Cech, a Nobel laureate in Chemistry and liberal arts graduate, had an intriguing comparison. Just like athletes perform exercises in sports other than their own, students should expand their curriculum to outside their major. “The cross-training may exercise key muscle groups more effectively than spending the same amount of time working out in the sport of interest.”

“Analogously, a liberal arts education encourages scientists to improve their ‘competitive edge’ by cross-training in the humanities or arts. Such academic cross-training develops a student’s ability to collect and organize facts and opinions, to analyze them and weigh their value, and to articulate an argument, and it may develop these skills more effectively than writing yet another lab report.”

This principle is realized in Fulbright’s undergraduate program, as described by Dr. Ian Bickford: “We think computer scientists need to know something about the humanities, perhaps about design, perhaps about neuroscience. The same is true if you come here to study Engineering. We think the best and most successful engineers have a broad knowledge of the arts and an ability to think critically and compassionately about the human experience. And if on the other hand you want to study literature or art history, we want you to regard those subjects as ways of understanding the complexities of the human mind and human society – and that this requires an awareness of the sciences, an awareness of how technology shapes our experience, an appreciation for how information travels and how networks are structured.”

The value of “valueless” knowledge

 As emphasized by Dr. Ian Bickford, whichever degree you graduate from Fulbright with, be it a bachelor’s in literature, philosophy or arts, your qualification is in no way inferior to that of engineering or computer science majors.

This is substantiated by real data cited by Dr. Bickford. In regard to statistics on income and occupation of university graduates in the US, a study has pointed out that despite a high initial salary potentially brought about by a degree in sciences or engineering, it loses its edge over time. In reality, a degree in liberal arts is no less useful than “practical” ones, especially for students who lack strong financial backing.

In the long run, people with such “valueless” backgrounds enjoy significant advantages in their pursuit of senior, managerial positions. Up to one-third of Fortune 500 CEOs graduated from liberal arts school. Some of them are world-renowned, namely Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO who holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Literature, or Jack Ma, Alibaba’s CEO with a bachelor’s in English Literature. In Vietnam, it is also common for famous CEOs to possess qualifications in non-relevant fields, such as the CEO of McDonald’s Vietnam, Henry Nguyen who has a degree in Classic Literature!

If you are still doubtful about the values of liberal education, Edgar Bronfman, former CEO of Seagram has one last advice to offer: “Get a liberal arts degree. In my experience, a liberal arts degree is the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future”!

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