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My view: Students need a liberal education

By Michael T. Benson and Bradley J. Cook

Published: Thursday, July 22 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

How do we best prepare students for success in the 21st century? This is, perhaps, the most profound question we face as educators and is a question all the state's colleges and universities take seriously.

The world is rapidly changing, as are the needs of employers. In a recent national survey by Hart Research Associates, employers report that in addition to a solid disciplinary depth, the top skills they look for in new employees include effective oral and written communication, analytical reasoning, past real world experience through internships and other service learning, and the ability to connect choice and actions to ethical decisions. By these standards, 75 percent of employers surveyed agreed recent college graduates do not have the skills to be successful in today's global economy. In essence, narrow learning and mere credentialing is no longer good enough for the complexities of our world economy.

It is also a fact that up-and-coming professionals will change career tracks multiple times. In other words, the best career preparation is one that positions the graduate with a set of transferable intellectual and practical skills, applicable in a variety of contexts.

Enter the liberal arts and sciences.

David Kearns, former CEO of Xerox Corp., remarked, "The only education that prepares us for change is a liberal education. In periods of change, narrow specialization condemns us to inflexibility. We need the flexible intellectual tools to be problem solvers, to be able to continue learning over time."

A modern-day liberal arts curriculum provides a depth and breadth to the educational experience. Universities use the term liberal to mean broad?(i.e.?"liberally" given). The essential aims and outcomes of a practical, contemporary liberal education?are to: (1) impart solid disciplinary knowledge; (2) impart essential intellectual and practical skills, including written and oral communication, critical and creative thinking, etc.; and (3)?impart to students a sense of individual and social responsibility. We applaud the Utah System of Higher Education's initiative to partner with the Association of American Colleges and Universities' LEAP program (Liberal Education and America's Promise). This initiative will assist with educational reform efforts to focus Utah on learning outcomes relevant for our new global century.

Within this framework Southern Utah University in Cedar City has crafted a contemporary design for liberal education that will meet three essential challenges for higher education in the state of Utah: (1) provide access to high-quality, public liberal arts and sciences learning; (2) forging the important connection between liberal and professional education; and (3) strategically integrating general education courses, experiential learning and student life with in-depth work in program-specific curriculum — giving both breadth and depth to the undergraduate experience.

The world our students are inheriting is integrative and interdisciplinary. We must prepare them for that reality. Classroom and theoretical learning is important, but it is also essential that students experience and apply their knowledge in real-world settings. If learning is more active, it is inevitably more meaningful and memorable, and at SUU, we are committed to an experiential-learning pedagogy as manifested in internships, service learning, clinical components, practicums, study abroad and applied research opportunities. The liberal arts and sciences model of an SUU education provides students an edge in a very competitive marketplace. It also aims to produce lifelong learners and engaged citizens.

The state's policy and fiscal mechanisms need to consider not only questions of access to higher education for its citizenry, but also questions involving type and kind of education that engenders productive and responsible citizenry. Ultimately the best return on the state's higher education investment is not about who enters through our doors, but how many students successfully graduate. Unless we support high impact educational practices such as those outlined by a broad, liberal education, our state's potential for sustainable economic progress will be forever challenged.

Michael T. Benson is president of Southern Utah University. Bradley J. Cook is SUU's provost and vice president for academic affairs.

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