It's been disheartening to hear people tear down liberal-arts education in recent years. College isn't — and, I'd argue, shouldn't be — the equivalent of four years of job-training classes.
But I get it; college isn't for everyone, and it certainly isn't free. It can seem like some college requirements are too esoteric, and too expensive. When you're in the midst of your university career, it can feel like a certain language or science requirement couldn't possibly have anything to do with your future job or your ability to get one. But if you ask people about that once they've hit mid-career, they'll often point to how those "pointless" required classes turned out to be important because it taught them to see the world differently. And the job world is changing quickly; you never know what you'll need to know.
That's why the core of the liberal-arts idea is smart: Via a variety of subjects, students learn how to think across many disciplines. Taking classes outside your major helps you think in a more mature way — to see, for example, the connections between seemingly disparate fields like painting and marketing, both of which have visual representation at their core. This is how students learn how to think for themselves, to think creatively, and to think broadly. That's difficult to do when you study one subject.
I's not wrong to expect colleges to prepare students for a working life, but doing away with the liberal arts framework isn't the way to do that.
Finding a balance
There's middle ground here. Bates College in Maine is one of the many schools trying to balance the ideals and value of a liberal-arts education with the realities of today's economy. They've also added a third challenge, one which many of today's young people prioritize more than previous generations: fulfillment at work. Most young people want well-paying jobs, yes, but they also want to be paid to do something that's personally meaningful. Considering how much time we all spend at work, prioritizing how your work life will impact your happiness makes sense.
Bates President Clayton Spencer calls her take on addressing this idea "purposeful work" as she explains in the video above. It combines the mind-broadening ideas of a liberal-arts education with support for job-seeking students as well as how to find work that is personally meaningful.
"The source of personal happiness and fulfillment has to be around meaning, and not the psychology of happiness," Spence told Quartz. "You find meaning by thinking and acting in the world in a way that aligns with your talents and interests and brings you joy, and makes a social contribution of some kind."
What does that look like when applied to classes? In a psych class about infancy, students not only attend lectures with a psych professor, but also hear from doulas, nurses, new parents and others involved in infant care. The real-life application of the psychology they are learning about and how it applies to these various jobs and roles are explored. That creates a more holistic education, and it helps students understand what the point of the class is — a lens through which to see the world — not just a requirement to get through.
Other examples of how these classes cross that divide include explicitly relevant information include a marketing class with a real business consultant as the professor, and another taught by a dancer who teaches how to succeed with an arts-related business.
Of course, Bates isn't the only college doing this — many schools offer classes in happiness or work-life balance. But "purposeful work" is baked into many of Bate's classes, and is meant for everyone, and it's a wider initiative than a single class.
Spencer made a point of ensuring that these initiatives are for all students: "I want to make sure our first gen[eration] students of color — groups for whom this kind of college is less part of the fabric in which they grew up — are optimizing their degrees," she told Quartz.
So far, students like and recommend the classes that incorporate the "purposeful work" paradigm, which makes sense — they're more aware than anyone that a tricky, rapidly changing world of work awaits them. They'll need all the preparation they can get to find success in it.