Friday, September 29, 2006

What is the Role of Today's University?

Among the Liberal Arts disciplines, there's a persistent distrust (or is it intimidation?) of the business community. Certainly, this is in many ways well-founded--for example, aggressive technology-transfer policies have been shown to actually be hampering the progress of broader scientific and technological research.

But perhaps, with the shift to a creativity-based economy over the past decade or so, the business community is finally searching for students who best exemplify a Liberal Arts education. Of course, this depends on the industry in question. Some industries will have more of a need for students with superior communications and critical thinking skills, than others. But overall, there is a general sentiment that the most innovative and creative organizations will necessarily become the most successful.

My personal experience is in the field of Tech, which is in desparate need of skilled workers with multidisciplinary backgrounds. And this is exactly the realm of a traditional Liberal Arts education....with a twist.

For example, the rise of social networking sites like, in addition to juggernauts like, Yahoo!, etc. have spawned a second (more even-handed/mature) tech boom. One of the distinguishing features of the second boom (I'll refer to this as Boom 2.0, as it's largely a product of the rise of Web 2.0) is that these sites are about people first, and technology second.

Therefore, the best employees that are working for these sites also have a knowledge of psychology, marketing and communications, graphic design, etc. IN ADDITION to their technical expertise as a programmer, database manager, etc. And vice versa--the content generation team must also have a basic knowledge of what is both possible, and practical, from the programmers' and information managers', etc. ends.

Boom 2.0 is a Renaissance that is demanding men and women whose knowledge is more suited to a "Renaissance Man." And this also applies to other industries. Corporate R&D spending is, and always has been, high--but today, the focus on creative approaches isn't limited to the R&D lab. Throughout the economy, we need specialists, but specialists with interdisciplinary backgrounds, who can approach problems from diverse perspectives.

I'd like to propose that those of us who teach in the Liberal Arts likewise follow suit. We ought to educate ourselves about what employers are seeking, so that we can better educate our students. In scholarship, there has been a push toward interdisciplinarity, and what's called "hybridity" within one's field. For example, today's scholar of Modernist Literature is encouraged to address the broader cultural context of a work, such as how developments in Physics (Einstein's Relativity) may have influenced the aesthetic structure of art and literature, such as the Cantos of Ezra Pound.

Perhaps we should also approach our field itself in a broader cultural context. For instance, we can work on issues like "How can the skills and methods by which scholars of literature approach a text--and discover new uses, perspectives, etc.--be applied OUTSIDE the discipline?" These very skills are what the business community is crying out for, and what Boom 2.0 requires.

They need what we can give--original approaches to common problems. If only we would do a better job of opening a dialogue between the business and Arts communities, we might never have to deal with questions like "What are you going to do with an English major? Teach?" ever again.

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