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Liberal Arts and Humanities Irrelevant? Not in Today’s Workforce


Kenneth L. Ender


​In my role as president of William Rainey Harper College, a large community college outside Chicago, I am constantly assessing the alignment of our curriculum with the needs of employers. As we all know, the world has changed. What were adequate workforce skills in the 20th century are dramatically inadequate in the 21st century. Now, more than ever, postsecondary credentials are the required ticket to the middle class.

So, what are these new essential skills? Perhaps surprising to some, they are grounded in the curriculum of the liberal arts and humanities. With amazing consistency, employers I talk to identify the key attributes of their successful employees as: literacy in communications and numeracy, the capacity to retrieve and analyze information, competency in interpersonal skills, and the ability to work well in teams—in other words, critical thinking skills, writing skills, communication skills, and the capacity to analyze and synthesize data, all of which are important outcomes of the “core curriculum” of community college degree programs.

The general education outcomes across our curriculum ensure our students can write and communicate well, read proficiently, think critically, process and interpret data, evaluate problems, frame ideas, leverage technology, determine a source’s credibility, and value diversity. In fact, at Harper College, we map every program in our curriculum and demonstrate how each course introduces, reinforces, or practices general education outcomes. This mapping is critical to our overall learning outcomes assessment model.

It makes little difference if we are discussing the qualifications of a STEM professional or, say, a community college–educated front-line emergency professional. We need these experts armed with “thinking skills.” Just as we want our engineers to think through the alternatives to bridging a river, we want our nurses to think through the various alternatives when addressing an emergency. Such critical reasoning, practiced by both types of professionals, finds its grounding in the liberal arts and humanities.

The path to the development and refinement of these skills is a strong general education curriculum, typically found in the liberal arts. This expertise also should be reinforced and practiced in many of the applied and professional programs. In fact, the key is to embed these outcomes across the entire curriculum. Communicating effectively and persuasively in writing is just as important in a nursing course as it is in a political science course. The liberal arts and the humanities, from this perspective, become the work of the entire college.

I am continually amazed by groups who see themselves as being at odds, when actually they are in agreement with one another. Some liberal arts faculty view themselves as the antithesis of workforce skills providers. In fact, the National Workforce Skills Standards demonstrate that more than 50 percent of the key workforce competencies, which employers call soft skills, are what educators call general education competencies.

If we, as a nation, are going to compete successfully in the 21st century economy, all of our educational opportunities must address these realities.


Kenneth L. Ender is president of William Rainey Harper College. He was an ACE Fellow in 1994–95, a Fellows Mentor in 2009–10, and a Nominator in 2005-06.