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Opinion

Liberate liberal arts from the myth of irrelevance

Today’s employers want workers who are thinkers. To meet the demands of the 21st century student and economy, a new model of liberal arts is emerging – one tied to hands-on experience.

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Liberal arts majors also build wind turbines

At my own institution, designated as "Connecticut's public liberal arts university," we have created such an expectation for our students. They are building wind turbines for schools in Jamaica; researching the sanitation systems of Ghana; interning in Washington, D.C.; exploring the coral reefs of Tahiti; building Habitat homes in West Virginia; and serving as math tutors for middle-school children in our hometown of Willimantic – to name a few "experiential learning" opportunities. Students taking advantage of them not only gain practical knowledge and skills, but also confirm their career choices as they are given a real-world context for their classroom learning.

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There are positive signs that this new liberal arts model is gaining a foothold across the country. One sign is data showing renewed interest in traditional liberal arts majors.

W. Robert Connor, former president of the Teagle Foundation, which supports liberal arts education, indicates that the number of majors in the social sciences and the humanities has increased from its historical lows or stayed constant in more recent years.

While hardly a seismic shift, this renewed interest in the liberal arts holds promise. In addition, educational leaders are making a strong public case for liberal arts education. The AAC&U, for instance, is conducting a 10-year promotional campaign for a liberal arts education and its relevance today.

As a member of the Presidents' Trust, a leadership group within the AAC&U, I hope more citizens realize that the economic and social transformation occurring in the United States requires workers who are able to adapt to change and the complexities of the modern world. The broad academic competencies of a liberal arts education, tempered by preprofessional opportunities for students to apply their learning in real-world settings, can help create a workforce ready for the economic challenges of the 21st century and a citizenry ready to lead America forward.

Elsa Núñez is president of Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.

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