As a blizzard bears down on D.C., AAC&U has been holding its annual meeting in the nation’s capitol. This morning’s Inside Higher Ed has an article, “The Proof Liberal Arts Colleges Need?” , about one of the conference presentations. Richard Detweiler, President of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, presented research results from 1,000 college graduates divided into groups of graduates who were 10, 20 and 40 years out of college. Some key findings from his study may be of interest to our campus as we revise our Liberal Education program.
Many of the survey questions dovetail with NSSE. (Ex: Did you talk with faculty members outside of class about academic issues and also about nonclasswork-related topics?) Regarding critical thinking,”rather than saying, ‘Were you taught critical thinking?’ the survey subjects were asked whether their professors encouraged them to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their views, and those of others, and whether they spent class time regularly talking about issues for which there was no single correct answer.” In order to understand the breadth of education the graduates had received, they were asked about the proportion of their courses that were outside their major. And they were asked questions about their current level of civic engagement.
A “key factor appeared to be out-of-the-classroom discussions with faculty members (both on academic and nonacademic subjects).” Respondents who had experienced high levels of out-of-classroom engagement with faculty were more likely to demonstrate leadership characteristics and to contribute to civic life. The highest levels of happiness and a sense of living a meaningful life were reported by respondents who “had conversations with those who disagreed with them and had in-class discussions of different philosophical, literary and ethical perspectives.”
While business and engineering majors, on average, earned more than liberal arts majors, “the top factor associated with a six-figure salary was not college major but having taken a large share of classes outside one’s major.” As we consider the possibility of shrinking the size of our liberal education program, we might keep this particular data point in mind. This is not the first study to suggest that the most successful professionals and innovators are those who couple a depth of knowledge in a discipline with breadth of knowledge across disciplines.
The bottom line in Detweiler’s study was “the impact not so much of major, but of studying many fields outside one’s major and of having intense philosophical discussions in class. Those things, he said, produce leaders, ethical people and happy people.”