Saturday, December 31, 2016

Western Civilization Under Threat from the Liberal Arts?

In "Western civilisation in safe hands at small Campion College" Greg Sheridan (The Australian , December 17, 2016) spends many column inches praising a small Australian higher education institution. Campion College is located in western Sydney, but it seems Sheridan sees it saving all of Western Civilization, not just Paramatta. ;-)

A Liberal arts college is a largely American form of institution, offering a small campus and first degrees in arts, humanities and social science. However, I suggest that we need a new creative class who have vocational and very technical skills, to continue to create wealth in western nations.

Campion claims to be the "first Liberal Arts College in Australia" offering a Bachelor of Arts (Liberal Arts), a Diploma of Liberal Arts (Foundations of the Western Tradition) and a Diploma of Classical Languages. However, several of Australia's universities already offer liberal arts programs and theological studies, most notably the Australian Catholic University, (while also offering vocational and postgraduate degrees).

For four years I have been a student of education in North America and as part of this have been participating in on-line forums with education academics from around the world. One curious aspect of this was a number of academics from liberal arts colleges in the USA arguing how they provided an education which was a good basis for employment, but lamenting employers did not recognize this. I had difficulty understanding what they were talking about.

My educational studies have been focused on students learning the skills they need for a vocation. This is very clear in my field of computing, where there is broad agreement on what a computer professional needs to know. My job as an educational designer is to translate these requirements into something which can be learned and assessed. The set of skills to be acquired have been agreed with industry, so provided I can show my students have the skills, they will have jobs.

What confused me about the liberal arts college academics approach was that they never seemed to be clear as to what jobs they were educating students for. Simply asking the academics did not produce a useful result. In looking at this further, the reason for the confusion became clear: a liberal arts college is not aiming to produce graduates for a vocation, but a broad knowledge, especially the arts and humanities.

Sheridan points out that many liberal arts graduates go on to postgraduate study at a "big university" and many "ended up in journalism". However, there are specialized undergraduate degrees for vocations such as journalism and Australian universities offer integrated undergraduate/postgraduate programs. In the past, when few people went to university, a degree (any degree) would be an advantage when applying for a job. However, an era when many people have degrees, employers can short list those people with qualifications relevant to a job. In this jobs market, having a generalist degree will be of little value and may be a disadvantage. A student who has studied the "Western Tradition" may not only be unqualified to do anything particular job, but also be a liability when working in multinational companies doing business in Asia.

The Bologna model, adopted by some Australian universities, has the student undertake a more general undergraduate degree, then Masters specialization. The University of Melbourne took this a stage further with the Melbourne Curriculum. However, even Melbourne still offers specialized vocational first degrees, not just a general degree.

Australian universities are competing globally for international students and will, over the next few years, increasingly competing globally for domestic Australian students. As education moves on-line, Australian institutions will need to offer courses attractive to students. I expect 80% of higher education will be on-line by 2020) and students will be able to study anywhere. Offering students a Liberal Arts qualification in the "Western Tradition" is not going to be very attractive for students requiring specific vocational skills for a global workplace.

In "The hipster is dead, and you might not like who comes next"
writer who "studied liberal arts in college". Lightheartedly describing himself as part of the “creative class", he coins the term "yuccie" to describe those who want to get rich quick but preserve their creative autonomy. However, I suggest that the creative class now needs specialized skills. Entrepreneurs can be trained in Innovation Workshops. The app infrastructure depends on highly trained computer professionals. This year I have been helping with innovation education: for a new creative class.

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