Homemade food, old friends, great conversation, and environmental economics

If you’ve visited Lawrence University over the past few months, you may have spotted me behind a sliding glass window right off the main lobby of the Admissions Office in Hurvis Center, staring intently at my dual monitor.  But last Thursday evening I found myself in the mustard-colored Greenfire house laughing with old friends, their faces glowing in the warmth of funky lights.  And what made the night truly lovely was the special guest I encountered when I got there.


As a student I was very involved with Greenfire, one of the main environmental clubs at Lawrence.  The house, where a handful of club members live and cook and are merry (and where I lived all of my senior year), happens to sit right across the street from Hurvis Center, which means I have no excuse not to frequently visit my friends who still live there and consume their fresh food creations (and, okay, wash some dishes while I’m there).

When I stopped by Thursday for a group meal, held in the house four times a week, I walked into the living room and saw Professor of Economics, David Gerard, sitting on the couch with his plate in his lap, in deep discussion with two students.  (Professor Gerard taught me Environmental Economics during a particularly beautiful spring term at LU.  The morning we had class outside, I remember feeling almost overcome by the scent of blooming lilacs while we analyzed the value of putting a price on carbon pollution.)

On Thursday the Greenfire club was kickstarting a series of lectures held in the comfy old house.  When I saw Professor Gerard digging into broccoli mac and cheese, he was gearing up for his talk on the economic viability of carbon sequestration.  What always amazes me is just how deeply interested Lawrence professors are in their areas of expertise, and how willing they are to share that expertise with their students.  Professor Gerard enjoys discussing the economics of natural resource extraction so much that he gave up his entire evening to do just that with a bunch of millennials.

During dinner, the atmosphere was no different from the nights when the house is not hosting a VIP.   We reminisced, filled our plates with seconds, talked about our weekend plans, traded ideas for why the candied walnuts in the salad tasted so perfect.  And that’s something that makes my alma mater so special.  It’s not difficult to come across homemade dinners (besides Greenfire, there’s the Sustainable LU Garden co-op and the McCarthy Co-op), friends, mindfulness–even professors–all in one place.

~Caitlin Buhr (Lawrence 2013), Data Operations Assistant



I think I just strained my neck…

…sudden 180-degree turns will sometimes have that effect.

For the past few years, we have been led to believe—whether it was in news stories or even in presidential State of the Union addresses—that higher education’s purpose was (or should be) vocational: colleges should train its students how to do something, preparing them to be Useful Citizens (in other words, “quickly deployed and employed”). Disciplines like business, science, engineering, technology—you know, practical things—were offered as the pavers on the path to prosperity.

The corollary was that the liberal arts and sciences, which don’t necessarily train you how to do a particular job, are a luxury, and, therefore, a risky investment. In some cases, government reinforced that message in alarming ways, as we saw in Florida’s recent proposal to create financial incentives to study those practical things (and, as a result, create disincentives to study the arts, humanities, and social sciences).

Which brings us to a completely different piece of news that ran in the June 18 New York Times (and the cause of that neck strain—which, for the record, may be one of the more pleasant neck strains we could have experienced). Perhaps that anti-liberal arts mindset may have been a bit short-sighted:

Humanities Committee Sounds an Alarm

A new national corps of “master teachers” trained in the humanities and social sciences and increased support for research in “endangered” liberal arts subjects are among the recommendations of a major report to be delivered on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

The report comes amid concern about low humanities enrollments and worries that the Obama administration’s emphasis on science education risks diminishing a huge source of the nation’s intellectual strength. Requested by a bipartisan group of legislators and scheduled to be distributed to every member of Congress, it is intended as a rallying cry against the entrenched idea that the humanities and social sciences are luxuries that employment-minded students can ill afford.

People talk about the humanities and social sciences “as if they are a waste of time,” said Richard H. Brodhead, the president of Duke University and a co-chairman of the commission that produced the report. “But this facile negativism forgets that many of the country’s most successful and creative people had exactly this kind of education.”  Read more…

Bias alert: the report was published by the Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities, which may have a bit of a vested interest in the outcome of the report. You can see the list of committee members here. It’s a wild mashup of several dozen people from the arts, higher education, private enterprise, and government. (The CEO of Boeing and Yo-Yo Ma at a table together? Yes please.)

On the other hand, the study was requested in 2011 by a bipartisan group of legislators that included Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Mark Warner (D-Virginia), and Representatives Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) and David Price (D-North Carolina), who were advocating for increases in research and teaching in the humanities and sciences—and looking for reasons to support that research with government and other agencies’ investments.

Regardless of the source or the origins of the report, this news is welcome to those of us in higher education who have been arguing that it is not an either/or world, but a both/and world: we need the liberal arts just as much as we need business and science and engineering and technology. In fact, they work together quite nicely. Creativity, innovation, collaboration, drawing meaning and understanding across apparently disparate disciplines—this is the playground of the liberal arts and sciences. Some of our greatest innovators and leaders have been liberal arts and sciences majors. As the sidebar in the New York Times piece shows, the two candidates in the last presidential election had undergraduate majors in political science (Obama) and English (Romney).

Our very own dean of the conservatory, Brian Pertl (a Lawrence University English and trombone performance major who went on to manage Microsoft’s Media Acquisitions Group before rejoining his alma mater in 2008), made perhaps the best argument for this both/and world in his recent TEDx talk called “Dancing Between Disciplines.” In typical liberal arts fashion, his argument is not so much an argument as it is a performance. (Warning: mind-blowing ideas accompanied by remarkably talented musicians included.) Check it out.

Three cheers for the liberal arts from a somewhat-less-than-objective-but-interesting-nonetheless source

I am posting to Admissions@Lawrence with some trepidation after my colleague, Andrea Hendrickson, wrote such a beautiful piece last week about how to tell colleges you’ve decided to go elsewhere. (If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. It’s a gem.)

I feel like a museum curator, who, charged with relocating the “Mona Lisa,” has replaced it with “Dogs Playing Poker.”

The following is one of those more utilitarian pieces you would expect to see pop up just two days before the National Candidates Reply Date. (That’s May 1, for those of you who haven’t circled, underlined, drawn stars around it—or all of the above—on your calendar.)

Repeating a theme we have addressed here often: the liberal arts, it turns out, are in demand by employers. Our friends at the Association of American Colleges & Universities* recently released a report digesting their findings from a national survey of 318 business and non-profit leaders: It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success

*Bias alert: AAC&U is a nearly 100-year-old organization dedicated to supporting liberal arts education.

You can probably tell where this is going…

Here are a few key findings:

  1. Nearly all the employers surveyed (93%) say that a “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major.”
  2. In addition to those three capacities, more than 90% of those surveyed believe it’s important to hire people that demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity for continued new learning.
  3. This one we really like: When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education, 74% would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.
    • That description, by the way, says: “This approach to a college education provides both broad knowledge in a variety of areas of study and knowledge in a specific major or field of interest. It also helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as intellectual and practical skills that span all areas of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.” (We don’t know what the other descriptions read like, so it’s difficult to judge what the comparisons were, but we’re heartened that employers value this type of experience.)

The takeaway?

How about, “Huzzah for the Liberal Arts?”

Which, come to think of it, would have been a better title for this post… if I were posting it in the late 1500s, which is when you may have been more likely to hear an occasional “huzzah!”

What do employers really want from college grads?

Score one more for the liberal arts.

In a story last week on Marketplace (a business-oriented American Public Media radio show that runs daily on NPR), we were presented with yet another argument for why the liberal arts and sciences are as relevant as ever in this economy.

The story centers on the results of a survey conducted by Maguire & Associates on behalf of Marketplace and The Chronicle of Higher Education. They contacted 700 employers who express general frustration with how colleges are preparing their students for the world of work: “Nearly a third said colleges are doing a ‘fair’ to ‘poor’ job of producing ‘successful employees.’ Despite persistently high unemployment, more than half of the employers said they had trouble finding qualified candidates for job openings.”

And what makes a “successful employee,” at least among those 700 employers in the survey group? (SPOILER: The answer is the kind that makes those of us who work at liberal arts colleges feel even more confident that what we offer is relevant, practical, and necessary. [Prospective students and parents, please take note.])

“We find that a lot of people, and not just new college grads, people that are coming from a career, aren’t getting that skill set,” Boyes [an employer interviewed in the story] says. “How you put an idea forward, and how do you support it, how do you build it, how do you put the facts behind it? All of those things are really critical.”

Boyes sounds like a lot of the employers who responded to our survey. More than half of them said they have trouble finding qualified people for job openings. They said recent grads too often don’t know how to communicate effectively. And they have trouble adapting, problem solving and making decisions – things employers say they should have learned in college.

That’s why everyone Boyes hires goes through a year-long training program. “The company puts probably about a quarter of a million dollars into every single new hire,” Boyes says. “But that’s the kind of value that we get out of it.”

The training covers basics – like how to write an effective business document – and throws in some philosophy and history

“We ask people to read Cato the Elder,” Boyes says. “We ask people to read Suetonius.”

Jobseekers, take note: you better brush up on your on your early Roman history.

“We do that because we ask them to look at the process – the abstract process – of organizing ideas,” Boyes says.

Sounds a lot like an argument for liberal arts education, at a time when more students are being told to study science and technology as a path to a career. Maguire Associates, the firm that conducted the survey, says the findings suggest colleges should break down the “false dichotomy of liberal arts and career development,” saying they’re “intrinsically linked.”

Or, as Boyes puts it: “We don’t need mono-focused people. We need well-rounded people.” And that’s from a tech employer.

Music to our ears. (Pun intended. If you don’t get the pun, remember that we have a conservatory of music paired with our college of liberal arts and sciences.)


“You’re talking rot!”(or, “Why the Liberal Arts and Sciences Still Matter”, Part 2)

Yesterday, we left you with a cliffhanger. Today, the start of an answer.

It has always been the particular challenge of a liberal arts and sciences program to answer the question “What can you do with it?” The question has become increasingly pointed in an economy that continues continues to sputter, joblessness remains woefully high, and, college costs continue to rise. The problem has been exacerbated by legislators (Democrats and Republicans alike) that often equate “college education” with “professional preparation”.  The Obama administration’s drive to put the United States back on top of the list of nations with the highest percentages of college degree holders by 2020 illustrates this. (We’re not even in the top 10, according to the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development.)

But there’s more to college education and professional preparation than just holding a degree.

It is necessary to have a well-trained, technically proficient citizenry. We need engineers, scientists, accountants, developers and others who can solve problems. But we also need people in these professions to be able to explain to others how they solved the problems. More important they need to teach others how to solve them for themselves. Purely vocational training likely will not get you all the way there. Strong writing, speaking and thinking skills can separate the merely good problem-solver from the great ones.

But limiting the discussion to the world of work is only part of the story. What of our lives outside our jobs?

What about being an informed citizen, one who can say not only what she believes, but make a compelling case for why she believes it?

What about being a critical consumer of information, one who is less likely to believe something just because it’s coming from an “authority,” like a newspaper, a news program, a blog, a politician, or even a professor.

The liberal arts and sciences can play an important role in developing the whole person—professionally and personally.

In a landmark study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa attempt to address a variety of questions about the amount and type of learning occurring in American colleges, based on a five-year longitudinal study of 2,300 students on 24 diverse campuses. One of the questions they address—are students improving their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills during college?—finds a positive correlation between academic rigor and the amount of gains seen in the development of this set of skills. Their Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) used performance tasks and holistic assessments (instead of surveys) to measure not only what students know, but what they don’t know.

In the study, students in the liberal arts and sciences fared far better than their peers in professional programs like business, engineering, communications, education and health. One of their hypotheses, according to Arum at a recent address to more than 100 college enrollment officials, is that the traditional arts and sciences is where the most academic rigor and, as a result, the most learning occurs, largely because of their heavier requirements for reading, writing, and intensive study—three activities that tend to be more independent endeavors. The study finds that students who spent, on average, more hours of independent study per week during college fared far better than those who spent, on average more hours in group study with peers during their college careers.

An interesting side note to the study is that those students who spent more time studying independently were also far more likely to read print or online news daily, and to discuss politics and public affairs.

So back to that question: “What can you do with the liberal arts and sciences?”

In an uncertain world, where the commonplace idea is that the most in-demand jobs ten years from now don’t yet exist, being a nimble, flexible, adaptive learner equipped with finely tuned reading, writing, speaking and thinking skills can be advantageous. A liberal arts and sciences curriculum can prepare you for your first job (though vocational experiences like internships will undoubtedly enhance that preparation). Perhaps more important, a liberal arts and sciences curriculum should prepare you for all of the jobs you’ll have after that.

And lest we pigeonhole ourselves merely as workers, a liberal arts and sciences curriculum can broaden the skills essential to a meaningful life outside the world of work. Such as being able to detect when a “man is talking rot.”

Or, as Andrew Delbanco, cultural critic and author of College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, said in an address in 2012: “You’re going to spend the rest of your life inside your head. You may as well make it an interesting place to be.”