Curriculum Opinion

The ‘T-Shaped Curriculum': Liberal Arts, Technical Education, or Both?

By Marc Tucker — June 18, 2015 7 min read
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Commencement speakers typically exhort their captive audience to follow their dream instead of being careerists. Everyone else is telling young people to be practical, forget the liberal arts, pick out a career in a high-demand field and go for it. In an age in which college graduates are thankful just to get jobs as waiters and waitresses and can’t imagine how they will ever pay off their college loans, leave their parent’s house and get one of their own, the commencement speaker doesn’t stand a chance.

But the commencement speaker is right...sort of. And so are the advocates of practicality...sort of. In a job market in which jobs are scarce, employers want someone who can hit the ground running with a high level of technical skill that fits the employer’s needs. If they can get it...why not?

But be careful. Fewer employers these days are offering full-time jobs with benefits and clear paths to a career in the firm to most of their staff. They are offering that only to a small core. More and more are offering temporary contract jobs with no benefits and no career paths. Jobs are being automated at an unprecedented rate in more and more fields. The specialized job for which you are preparing may not be done by humans when you get your sheepskin. Entire industries are being put out of business by disruptive technologies.

This sounds like a no-win choice: either specialize in a high demand field and find yourself without the skills needed to do something else when that field collapses or prepare yourself for everything in general and nothing in particular and find yourself waiting on tables.

But that is not the choice. The challenge, I think, is clear. Young people do need to enter the job market with strong marketable skills that include the technical skills needed to both do the work they are first given and to pursue a career in that field, whether that young person is going to be a specialty welder, a computer systems analyst or an attorney. But they need more arrows in their quiver than that.

Now, more than ever, they need a solid education in the liberal arts. That is partly for very old reasons—because we need responsible citizens who vote and can make well-informed decisions when they go to the polls; adults who understand where liberty and freedom came from, how fragile they are and what it takes to preserve them, people who as adults will know what is right and what is wrong and will do the right thing even when no one is looking; and adults who are able to appreciate the finest art and music the world has ever known.

While the idea of an education in the liberal arts is widely written off these days, much is made of the need to help our students grow up into adults who are creative and innovative. But what does it take to do that? Experts in creativity like Amabile, Gardner and Sternberg think that one of the major wellsprings of creativity consists of the application of the conceptual framework from one field or discipline to the problems being worked on in another field or discipline. That only works, though, for people who have a deep knowledge of both fields. Which is how Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist, won the Nobel Prize in economics. But where does the deep understanding of the concepts and frameworks from these fields come from? The answer, of course, is the kind of understanding that lies at the heart of a sound education in the liberal arts.

But there is another reason that the liberal arts are more important than ever. While many people think of an education in the liberal arts as the antithesis of a practical education, I think otherwise. Nothing is more practical than being ready to undertake another career as the one you chose becomes obsolete, or to undertake many careers at once, as a growing number of independent contract workers are doing either by choice or design.

The phrase “learn how to learn” comes trippingly off the tongue these days. But much less is usually said about what makes it possible to learn new things quickly. We know that learning something new depends importantly on having a mental framework to hang it on or put it in. The most important of those frameworks are the conceptual structures underpinning the disciplines.

And much is made of the importance of interdisciplinary knowledge. But that knowledge will do you little good unless you first understand the disciplines themselves, not just superficially, but at a deep conceptual level. As one builds up that kind of knowledge in multiple disciplines, it becomes possible to draw on the knowledge and concepts in those domains to see the connections among them. Learning new things is much easier when you can build on this sort of foundation.

One hundred years ago, people thought that learning required thinking and thinking required mental discipline and mental discipline could be taught by studying something that obviously required mental discipline, like, say, Latin. But we know now that this is not true. Being facile in one discipline may give one some novel tools to analyze phenomena in other disciplines, but there is not much transfer. Each discipline has its own rules. This is yet another reason for studying the core disciplines with care to build a firm foundation for later learning.

But what does it mean “to think”? It surely has something to do with the ability to analyze complex problems and, at the same time, with the ability to synthesize information from many disparate sources to find a solution to a complex problem. When you think about it from this vantage point, it should come as no surprise that what it means to think is different for problems in physics than for problems in literary analysis or marine engine repair. Nor should it surprise us to find that gaining a lot of experience in analysis across the liberal arts should make it easier to learn a new field. You have more frameworks to hang new knowledge on, more tools to analyze new problems with, larger and more complex frameworks with which to integrate new information with old, more possibilities for bringing fresh perspectives to old problems by bringing the frameworks from one field to bear on the problems in another.

And now consider writing. If you cannot write well about it, you probably don’t understand it. If you cannot marshal the facts from a wide assortment of sources to make a compelling, logical argument, your command of the facts may be shaky and your ability to weave them together in a logical way may be just as shaky. Writing and complex thought are close companions. Even if you have got it straight in your head, if you cannot communicate it clearly, then you are at a huge disadvantage in today’s world, a world in which little can be accomplished by individuals who do not work in concert with others. From my point of view, good writing is the acid test of a good liberal education.

I have been presenting here an ideal of a liberal education which is far from the reality in too many places. Too few students leave college able to write well, whether or not they have studied the liberal arts. At too many colleges, the liberal arts curriculum can be no more than a random assortment of giant survey courses and idiosyncratic subjects tied more to what interests the faculty than what students need to build a solid foundation. Many universities and colleges make it all too easy for young people to study a discipline in the liberal arts in the expectation that it will lead to work in that discipline when little or none is available while, at the same time, failing to offer a broad and deep education in the liberal arts.

But there are colleges that still offer a first-rate education in the liberal arts of the sort I have been talking about. So hold the idea of that sort of education in your head for a moment. And now imagine that that it is married to the idea of preparing all of our students not just with a strong liberal education, but also with the skills and knowledge needed to hit the ground running with a strong technical education in a specialized area in strong demand from employers. That is what many people call the “T-shaped curriculum,” a curriculum that goes very deep in one area, but sits on top of a very strong liberal arts foundation that provides the flexibility for the entire workforce to keep learning and changing occupations throughout their entire life.

To do this at a price that nations and individuals can afford will require a much more efficient education system than most nations have now. We cannot keep piling on cost and more years of education. We will have to figure out how to educate everyone far faster and far more deeply then ever before, and we will have to figure out how to make academic education far more applied from the very beginning, with no sacrifice in academic understanding.

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