Monday, March 31, 2014

The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

A recurrent theme in the contemporary conversation about higher education is the need for more research and more graduates in disciplines associated with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Rightfully so. These are critical areas of knowledge for facing and resolving the global challenges of our time.  Furthermore, a compelling case is readily made that such disciplines are crucial to economic competitiveness and job creation.  Finally, creating the necessary understanding of the difficult challenges and choices ahead will depend upon increased scientific and quantitative literacy.
Less well understood, I think, is the equally critical importance of education in the liberal arts.  We are no longer merely a part of the global economy; we live in an increasingly global society. Thomas Friedman (of “The World is Flat” fame) makes the point that we now live in a “hyper-connected” and “interdependent” world.  Consequently, the global society thereby created is exceedingly complex. It is a shared, 24/7 society layered on an enormous and frequently incompatible array of cultures, languages, histories, religions, and governments.  In such a world, studies of history, religion, philosophy, economics, sociology, communications, languages, and numerous other subjects commonly thought of as comprising the liberal arts, are important components of higher education.  The skills of critical analysis, expository or thematic writing, presentation, research, and communication are essential for success.  Music, art, literature, and their manifestations on the global web are increasingly the means by which culture is translated, assimilated, and understood.
The ways in which we teach and engage students with the liberal arts must necessarily adapt. John Dewey presciently observed: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”  The global context should be at the forefront of our pedagogical strategies. Many entering students sense that a global perspective is important in areas such as economics, political science, and history, but may be less aware of the connections and impacts in other domains important to their studies, their lives, and their futures.  Uncovering and illuminating the rapidly expanding connections and relationships among cultures and nations is an important role of liberal arts education in the 21st century. To achieve this goal, education in the liberal arts needs to be both rigorous in its exposition of the nature and contributions of the various disciplines involved, and consistently interdisciplinary in its approach to the new reality of an interdependent world.
The University of Rhode Island is making excellent progress toward this global vision for liberal arts education.  For example, it is a key feature of our academic strategic plan and of much of the scholarship and creative work conducted in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts.  The Harrington School of Communication and Media has a global orientation and emphasis for all its programs, and views communications in the 21st century as an interconnected, interdisciplinary realm of expertise and activities.  Our emphasis on the study of language in combination with other disciplines, going well beyond introductory language instruction to include literature, cultural studies, and time abroad, is an exemplary approach for students to gain true global competencies.  URI’s increasing success in bringing students from across the world to help build a diverse community on our campus is essential to develop resilient multicultural understanding.
The nations, societies, and cultures of our world are now intimately connected and mutually dependent. Misunderstanding and miscommunication can be catastrophic. Peace, health, and economic prosperity depend on people and places that were once remote, but are no longer. The study of humanity – its history, behavior, thought, and creativity – which is the focus of the liberal arts, has never been more important than in the world of the 21st century.