The following opinion piece ran in
The Hechinger Report
on 30 April 2019.
Can the liberal arts navigate poverty, diminished opportunity and robots?
by Jonathan D. Green
The poor and less-educated are the portion of our population most
threatened by automation and artificial intelligence, as more and more
of their job prospects are disappearing.
When a recent study, “
Robots Need Not Apply: How Job-Seeking Students Can Crush Their Fear of a Technology Takeover
revealed an unmet need of employees with “soft skills,” it was more
evidence that liberal-arts graduates are essential in the workforce —
and especially important for those seeking to break out of a cycle of
poverty and diminishing opportunities.
A college degree alone is not a guaranteed defense against being
replaced by technology. Employers cited listening, attention to detail,
and communication as the most desired skills they sought in new
employees, in the study conducted by the educational consulting firm
Cengage and the research firm Morning Consult.
Colleges and universities provide gateways to the middle class for
many deserving students. At Susquehanna University, where I am
president, approximately 40 percent of students are first-generation
college attendees, and 31 percent of our first-year class are Pell Grant
recipients. We foster a skill-set that will protect our graduates from
the impending obsolescence of so many of the jobs to which they would be
limited without a university education.
Nearly three-quarters of employers indicated that it was challenging
to find qualified employees, and only two-thirds said that colleges and
universities had prepared students well for the workplace. Almost as
many (72 percent) indicated that gaining workplace experience prior to
graduation was the single most important thing that students can do to
be competitive in today’s job market.
The fundamental message of the report is how students can make themselves “robot-proof.” The theme is surely inspired by a book
of that title by Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University,
declaring our duty to make our students irreplaceable by technology in
the era of artificial intelligence. Soft skills are an essential part of
The term “soft skills” arose in the development of training programs
for the U.S. military in the early 1970s. These are skills and traits
that are often associated with social intelligence, which the British
neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey has averred is what fundamentally
makes us human. In a recent blog post, Trevor Muir suggests that we start calling them “essential skills.”
The Cengage report did not differentiate the preparedness of
applicants by type of academic institution. This is unfortunate because
residential liberal-arts colleges focus more deeply on students’
development of these skills in their curricula and co-curricular
programming. Personal and social responsibility skills are at the heart
of a liberal-arts education. Our institutions are founded on the
principles of whole-person education and the development of
citizen-leaders who have been prepared to think critically and act
Liberal-arts students are expected to apply what they learn on our
campuses to real-world experiences through rigorous internships,
service-learning projects and independent research. Their applied
projects are typically shaped by human factors that require careful
cultivation of soft skills to be effective. From this, the most
compelling components of the work often emerge.
On our campus, many students and faculty engage in “project-based
learning” in which coursework is applied to a need or question from the
community. Students work with community partners to develop a response
or solution. Recent projects have included theater students developing
new approaches to presenting sensitive material onstage, business
students undertaking market research for local businesses, and
environmental science students conducting watershed planning work for
regional and state agencies.
Above all, we challenge our students, who represent extraordinary
socioeconomic diversity, to think about why their efforts matter, why
they should want to make a difference, and how they can develop
successful careers that advance businesses and organizations they can
care about. We help them to lift themselves up, and we prepare them to
elevate their communities.
The liberal arts have always been about giving students the tools
they need and instilling in them the confidence to be successful. It is
the difference between a student who understands “why” versus “how.”
These are the elements that are most fundamentally human and those that
truly make liberal-arts graduates robot-proof.