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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Arts
April 23, 2014
Canadian Excellence



Faculty of Arts

Thank you, Steve Jobs

by Michael Carroll, Dean of Arts

Oct 11/11


Michael Carroll, 519-884-0710 ext. 3891

One of the things that I do as Dean is to meet alumni and many of these alumni are people who have become leaders in the business community. In talking with this particular group I recurrently come across three patterns. The first is that they have a deep attachment to their undergraduate experience here at Laurier - and that sense of attachment seems strong no matter how long they have been away. The second pattern is that they have typically moved from one company to another several times over the course of their career. The third pattern is related to the second: these alumni invariably credit the core skills that they acquired in the Faculty Arts as being critical to their success generally but critical in particular to their ability to adapt successfully to new challenges and environments as they moved from one organizational context to another. In listing the core skills they're talking about, they typically point to critical thinking; the ability to work effectively in groups; the ability to communicate clearly both in writing and orally; and the ability to adapt to change by learning new ways of doing things. What they point to, in other words, are the skills that have always been the hallmark of a liberal arts education.

The practical value of these skills, as part of mix of skills that collectively are required in the modern world, has recently become the subject of any number of internet articles and blogs because of something that Steve Jobs said in early March (2011) when introducing the iPad 2:

"Itís in Appleís DNA that technology alone is not enough ó itís technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.Ē

Jobs, then, has succinctly expressed what proponents of the liberal arts have been saying for decades: liberal arts education must be part of the mix if we want our society to prosper.

Something else that I've now heard several times from alumni who've been successful in business is that although they and their company like to hire Arts graduates because Arts graduates possess the core skills mentioned above, they don't really look at the particular major that people took in university. And of course this makes perfect sense. After all, you can acquire the core skills associated with a liberal arts education whether you take Sociology, History, Political Science, Women and Gender Studies, etc. As one recent commentator has said "The truth is that, in a world where jobs and entire industries are changing at lightning speed, the choice of major is far less important than the broad, cross-cutting capacities one develops in college." But all this, in turn, has a liberating consequence for students in Arts: since the economic value of a liberal arts education is not tied to one specific set of courses, each student can take the particular set of courses that ignites his or her imagination.

Still, when all is said and done, are we certain that a liberal arts education does impart the core skills we've been talking about? Actually yes, since there is now a massive amount of evidence attesting to this. To take just one recent example: Academically Adrift, a book published in January (2011), has become something of a bestseller in academic circles because the findings in the book paint such a dismal picture of what's happening (or, really, what's not happening) in US Colleges and Universities for a great many students. The authors of this study administered the College Learning Assessment (CLA) to students in the very first semester of their first year and then again in the final semester of their second year. The CLA is an assessment tool that uses an open-ended format to assess three skills: critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills. Again, these skills of course map well onto the core skills that a liberal arts education is supposed to impart.

So what did the authors of the study find? Perhaps the most significant finding, and one that has generated the most commentary, is that nearly a half of the students survey showed no improvement in their CLA scores over two years. Two years of college or university, in other words had no effect on critical thinking, complex reasoning or writing skills for a significant portion of students. Other results were interesting because they point to factors for success among students today. For example, increasing the number of hours studying alone led to an increase in a studentís CLA score; increasing the number of hours spent studying with other people led to a decrease in a student's CLA score. But what is most significant for us are the results by field of study. Simply put, students who majored in the social sciences and/or humanities showed significantly more improvement in their CLA scores than students majoring in Engineering, Computer Science, Education, Social Work or Business.

Just as the advocates of a liberal arts education have always argued, then, such an education leads to the acquisition of core skills like critical reasoning, complex reasoning, and the ability to write well. I started by pointing out that these skills are credited by alumni as being instrumental in their own success. But of course these skills also insure an educated citizenry and individuals who can reflect well on their own life - and that makes for a society that benefits us all.

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