The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Liberal arts education in the Age of Trump

Davidson College in North Carolina. (Courtesy of Davidson)

This viewpoint is from the president of Davidson College, a private institution in North Carolina.

By Carol Quillen

The hand-wringing time for higher education is over. The economic realities that shaped the 2016 election also apply to students on our campuses.

Here’s how.

The anger that helped GOP nominee Donald Trump win the presidency grew out of frustration with technology and a global economy that left a large swath of Americans behind. Their educational experience did not and does not equip them to adapt to rapidly changing workforce needs. A high school diploma used to assure employment opportunities and often a middle-class income. Those days are a distant memory, and the future trend line only falls more steeply. How many jobs will delivery drones and autonomous vehicles eliminate?

College students already recognize the career value of a post-secondary degree and the likely increase in their lifetime earnings. At the same time, just as a high school diploma no longer provides the opportunities it once did, a narrowly focused college degree aimed at a specific job does not equip a graduate for the accelerated pace of economic change. As we aggressively broaden access to post-secondary education we must simultaneously ensure that a college degree pays off.

Today’s graduates need broadly transferable skills — how to communicate, build a team in a multicultural work environment, tackle an intractable problem, analyze complex data and make timely decisions with imperfect information. Similarly, graduates need the work ethic and resilience to learn new fields quickly, so that they can recognize and adjust to unpredictable shifts in our global economy and world. And to lead in a pluralistic, free society, they need deeply rooted humane instincts: compassion, intellectual curiosity, self-awareness, integrity and moral courage.

These are not circumscribed technical skills. These are character attributes and habits of mind that will enable our nation’s children to think critically, communicate clearly and design ethical, sustainable solutions to societal challenges we cannot yet imagine.

At Davidson College, we are reimagining the liberal arts experience so that our graduates are ready for their careers and the next stage of their lives — and for the stage after that. We are not alone. From Maine to California, liberal arts colleges are helping students turn creative ideas that grow out of approaching questions collaboratively and from varied perspectives into actionable plans and impact for good. Oberlin’s LaunchU accelerator and Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship signal this new focus. Similarly, liberal arts colleges are exploring how massively open online courses (MOOCs) can meaningfully expand educational opportunity. We are strengthening partnerships with businesses, tech start-ups and nonprofits, both to better educate our students and to address health care, economic and educational challenges in our communities.

Undergraduates at Davidson collaborate on original research with tenured faculty, opportunities often reserved for advanced graduate students, and then collaborate with practitioners who can put it to use. Our Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative provides experience with design thinking, seed funding to develop ideas, and training in making pitches to investors. Our civic engagement and career centers help students imagine and explore multiple career paths, cultivating a nimbleness that enables them to confidently navigate the ambiguity of continually shifting life opportunities.

Today’s students come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, faith traditions and socio-economic circumstances. They entered the country, as did many of us, across different borders, at different times and with different documents. Their collective potential knows no bound. If we do our job, they will become the leaders who, inspired by our nation’s founding principles, build a country where all are free and equal opportunity is real.

It is an urgent, noble and resolutely forward-looking mission.