Commencement Address 2015

Mount Holyoke Graduates: Connecting the Liberal Arts with the World's Important Questions

By Carol Geary Schneider ’67

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to the graduating class and their families at this wonderful, milestone moment. A commencement is always an extraordinary event, and it is really a privilege to be part of it.

And to the seniors—congratulations! This is your day.

Tomorrow, of course, we’re going to expect you to go out and repair that troubled world.

But today, I hope you will take time to kick back, take a deep breath, and revel in the pride and happiness that you really have earned your college degree.

It is a huge honor to be asked, as an alumna, to provide the graduation remarks, but I am especially pleased to have an opportunity to speak with you—students, parents, faculty, and trustees—at this particular moment in Mount Holyoke’s history.

Mount Holyoke has always been a great college, and there’s no question that the education Mount Holyoke offers literally is transformative, filling the amazing women who study here with an infectious sense of purpose and passion you will carry with you in everything you do.

But today—and speaking as the head of a large network of some 1,350 colleges, universities, and community colleges, both public and private—I firmly believe that Mount Holyoke College has positioned itself at the very forefront of much needed change—in college education broadly, and in liberal or liberal arts education specifically.

And that’s what I want to talk about this morning: the larger U.S. context for college education and the really bold leadership Mount Holyoke College now is providing in broadening the reach—and in enlarging the meaning of a twenty-first-century liberal arts education. And I want to talk, as well, about what Mount Holyoke’s creative approach to liberal arts education will mean for you, the graduating seniors—both in your transitions to employment and careers and, ultimately, in the roles you will play in the larger society, at home and abroad.

Now I am truly mindful that these are very big topics. And, I promise—as my gift to all of you—that I really am going to finish in just a few minutes!

But on the other hand, this is Mount Holyoke College, known worldwide since the days of Mary Lyon for its amazing work ethic. So the posted text of this talk comes complete with a reading list. [See below.]

And for those seniors who are still “in progress” with your job search, I especially recommend the studies I’ve posted showing what employers are seeking when they hire new college graduates.

But let’s start now with the big picture: the larger landscape of U.S. higher education.

Liberal Education Then and Now

From the time of its founding, Mount Holyoke positioned itself at the forefront of a distinctively American tradition we usually describe as liberal or liberal arts education. Liberal education was the term most commonly used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and I’ll use both terms this morning.

Today, the word “liberal” is, of course, a fiercely contested descriptor.

But, in fact, liberal education as a strategy for college learning has never been politically partisan—not in earlier centuries and not today. Rather, liberal education has always sought—from the founding era to the present—to work in creative partnership both with the ideals and the changing needs of our democratic republic.

Liberal education—as Thomas Jefferson understood it and, later, as the trail-blazing Mary Lyon would help shape its practices—was designed to provide this fledgling democracy with leaders and teachers who would help build urgently needed social and practical intelligence, both for the economy and for the republic. Democracy was an experiment, radical, fragile, and vulnerable, as everyone recognized. American leaders looked to the colleges to build needed knowledge but also to cultivate civic values or virtues, including the whole concept of commitment to the public good. Liberal education was intended to be education for the responsible use of freedom—and studies in the liberal arts and sciences were then and are now tied to the sustainability of the democratic experiment.

So what is a liberal education—and what do I mean when I say that Mount Holyoke is now taking a bold leadership role in the redesign of liberal and liberal arts education for a twenty-first-century context?

Traditionally, and today, there have been three enduring goals of a liberal education:

  • First: Cultivating broad knowledge of the world we inherit—about science and society, about our histories, cultures, values, and arts. Leadership knowledge in the premodern world; civic knowledge in a democratic and globally engaged society.
  • Second: Developing intellectual capacities or what we might call “powers of the mind” so that people can reach reasoned and, we hope, evidence-informed judgments about complex questions.
  • Third: Fostering a grounded sense of both ethical and civic or societal responsibility for our communities, for democracy in the U.S., and for the planet we share with the peoples of the world.

The first of those enduring goals, cultivating the broad knowledge you need to make sense of a complex world, underscores the reasons why U.S. educators have always insisted that students in our colleges cannot just study one academic field, and why they really must acquire broad learning across the so-called liberal arts and sciences. Both as citizens, and today, as professionals, we all need a big picture of the changes that are sweeping through our world—both the big developments like globalization, but also all the continuing quests—both at home and abroad—for voice, power, recognition, human dignity, and expanded opportunity.

But the other two enduring goals—developing the powers of the mind, and developing a grounded sense of ethical responsibility to oneself and to others—are equally fundamental to a liberal or liberal arts education.

A liberal education teaches you to look critically at the evidence before you leap to judgment, and it also challenges you to consider your options and your ethical responsibilities from other people's points of view and not just from your own. To borrow a phrase from the feminist Carol Gilligan, liberal education cultivates an ethic of care.

Mount Holyoke is Breaking New Ground in Twenty-First-Century Liberal Arts Education

While the three broad goals of a liberal education are indeed enduring, the fact is that the way we approach these goals is always evolving. Liberal education has remained our premier educational tradition, not because it is traditional but because it is constantly innovating, constantly adapting to engage the changes that are happening in the wider world.

When I look across the landscape of higher education today, it’s clear to me that there are two big innovations in the making for liberal and liberal arts education.

One is the move toward working on problems—problems that cut across different disciplines and require cross-disciplinary collaboration. The second is giving students hands-on experience—applied learning experiences—in actually grappling with those problems.

And this, it seems to me, is where Mount Holyoke is staking out new ground for the value, context, and social power of a twenty-first-century liberal education. Among the most admired liberal arts colleges, Mount Holyoke is taking the lead in breaking free of an idea that became widely entrenched in the twentieth century, the concept of college as a kind of pastoral retreat—removed by design from the bustling wider world, providing rich learning to be sure, but, intentionally and deliberately, downplaying the links between thought and action, at least until students had left the college. We all know that imagery—higher education as an ivory tower.

But today, Mount Holyoke has taken as its mission the concept of “purposeful engagement in the world”—not after college, but through college, during college.

And, inspired by that mission, Mount Holyoke is developing a powerful and exciting model for twenty-first-century liberal education—a model that deliberately and actively prepares college women to connect your learning with the world’s most important questions. Or, to put it differently, where it was standard practice in the twentieth century for liberal arts institutions to downplay the connections between thought and action, or between knowledge and decision-making, Mount Holyoke is renewing that connection in a bold and far-reaching way.

Through the recently established Mount Holyoke Lynk—L-Y-N-K—the College now expects all Mount Holyoke students to have at least one major guided experience of hands-on or applied learning, a paid internship or a supported research experience.

But equally important, Mount Holyoke is now moving to help students connect (or "lynk") that hands-on learning experience with the larger curriculum. Through courses that students take in connection with their internships and projects, through the LEAP symposium the College now offers on students’ off-campus learning, and indeed, through the various thematic centers that the College has created—for example, the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, or the Miller Worley Center for the Environment—Mount Holyoke is providing guided opportunities for students to work on issues that are critically important in society, and to undertake significant projects related to those issues.

And Mount Holyoke is connecting this new focus on action learning with its long-standing strength as one of the nation’s premier research colleges. Students at Mount Holyoke aren’t asked to choose between research and real-world experience. The college curriculum at Mount Holyoke has provided you with the best of both.

Moreover, Mount Holyoke faculty and staff are working assiduously, helped by many generous donors, to make students’ real-world experiences global, cross-cultural, and in the very best sense of the word, reciprocal with other communities and diverse perspectives. Mount Holyoke is, of course, one of the nation’s most diverse institutions, drawing students from all parts of the world and every sector of U.S. society. But in addition, in the context of their Lynk studies, students are fanning out across the world—working in businesses, health centers, not-for-profits, and community agencies of many different kinds.

And, in my view, it’s in this rich engagement both with significant problems and with diverse communities that the full meaning and social power of a multidisciplinary liberal arts education really come to life.

The disciplines are important, of course, in this new ecology for liberal learning, because they build analytical rigor. But the great problems of humanity do not come in tidy packages labeled English, economics, or biology. No really important question can be framed comprehensively through the lens of a single academic perspective. So we need rigor, but we also need cross-disciplinary thinking.

When students work on real-world problems—whether contemporary problems like women’s health and literacy or climate change, or enduring challenges like ethics, peace, and justice—they find that they are necessarily working across academic disciplinary boundaries.

And, by working with community partners and mentors on complex problems, students come to see with new clarity their need for, and even dependence on, diverse perspectives and diverse ways of encountering the world. They experience liberal and liberal arts education not as a set of courses, but rather as the bringing together of the entirety of their learning—knowledge, skills, values, practical intelligence, judgment, and inventiveness with colleagues—to create needed solutions to important public problems and dilemmas.

Analytical and Applied Learning: The Twenty-First-Century Liberal Art

Now the families here, I am sure, have been hearing about your daughters’ projects, research, and internships one experience at a time.

And, in fact, in the final semester of senior year, you may well have been hearing much more about the pain than the gain. I have a granddaughter who just finished up her own senior project at a southern university, and I know how grueling her senior year has actually been.

So my goal here is to lift our sights to the big picture and to help you see that what’s happening at Mount Holyoke right now really is empowering and world-expanding for our students. Mount Holyoke is bringing a fresh and much-needed “can-do” and “will-do” mindset to the liberal arts. And that can-do mindset is going to be invaluable to the graduating seniors as you leave the College and fan out to new destinations, near and far.

I want to underscore how distinctive this college is in making practical, hands-on, applied learning experiences an expected even a signature component of the Mount Holyoke College curriculum.

Across the huge landscape of U.S. higher education, almost every institution, two- and four-year colleges alike, makes internships, research, and other participatory hands-on learning experiences available to students.

But Mount Holyoke is one of just a handful of institutions that now are making hands-on or applied learning an expectation for every graduate. And Mount Holyoke is almost unique among the leading liberal arts colleges in making applied learning an integral part of the educational experience and a signature focus for faculty-student dialogue and collaborative learning.

I am truly proud of what is happening at Mount Holyoke College. It is transformative, in all the ways that a liberal arts education really should be.

Liberal Arts Education is the Best and Most Powerful Preparation for a Fast-Changing Economy

Up until now, I have been talking about what’s happening at Mount Holyoke from an educational and a societal perspective. The new dynamism at Mount Holyoke is great for learning, and I also believe this kind of learning will be renewing for our democracy.

But now I want to shift focus and talk briefly about the value of this kind of applied liberal learning—this melding of knowing and doing—for jobs and careers in the twenty-first-century economy.

And as I make this shift to the critical connection between liberal learning and career opportunity, I am mindful, of course, that the kind of liberal arts education we value at Mount Holyoke has come under ferocious fire, in part from the media, but especially from a broad swath of policy leaders who have persuaded themselves that there is no connection at all between the liberal arts and career success.

Numerous national governors, as I am sure you all know, have stated aggressively that public money should not be spent on fields like gender studies, anthropology, or the humanities. Even the president has made disparaging remarks about art history as less remunerative than some of the skilled trades.

Just recently, Wisconsin drew startled attention when the governor’s staff proposed a rewrite of the mission of the University of Wisconsin system. That rewrite crossed out such mission-level goals as the search for truth and service to society, and wrote in, instead, that the primary purpose of higher learning in Wisconsin was workforce development.

But Wisconsin was hardly alone. The National Governors Association—as a whole—issued a report in 2011, which said that higher education needed to reduce its commitment to the liberal arts and instead focus its scarce resources primarily on job-related training.

In fact, it is quite stunning that, at a moment when the economy is ever more complex and ever more affected by developments around the world, we have policy leaders who want to abandon big-picture learning and encourage young people to specialize in learning how to do very specific jobs.

Moreover, virtually all public discussion of what matters in college has lost sight entirely of those founding connections between liberal education and democracy that were once a point of pride.

And yet—and this is the point I most want to underscore—employers themselves have not asked for, and in fact, do not want the kind of narrow, blinkered, truncated preparation for jobs and the economy that many policy leaders are promoting.

Rather, what employers consider the most valuable preparation for long-term success in today’s economy is exactly the kind of broad, big-picture, and hands-on liberal learning that a Mount Holyoke education now provides.

I say this with confidence because, through our LEAP initiative, we at AAC&U have been working directly and intensively with employers for over a dozen years.

We started back in 2002 with convenings around the country that eventually involved over a thousand business and not-for-profit leaders. Later we commissioned a series of employer focus groups.

And in these forums, from one coast to the other, employers insisted that they urgently need—and have trouble finding—new employees who think critically and creatively, communicate clearly, and who are committed to the importance of continuing learning.

They look, they said, for what they call a “360-degree perspective.” What they do not want, they say, are employees who are locked into what employers describe as “mental cubicles.”

This is a very fast-moving economy, so employers recognize that the key to their own success is successful innovation. Therefore, they are looking for graduates who can help them succeed with innovation, who will think outside of the box, and who will revel in the opportunity to invent better practices and tackle new frontiers.

Moreover, because they see innovation as a driver, employers place especially strong emphasis on students’ diversity experiences and competence. They know that diverse perspectives contribute to creativity, so they not only seek diversity in their own hires, but they also value people who have ventured out of their own comfort zone—by working in other parts of the world, or by working in community-based partnerships. They also spoke fervently about ethics and the importance of ethical integrity as a job qualification.

Employers prize, in other words, exactly those qualities of mind and spirit that a Mount Holyoke education fosters.

Informed by what we learned at these convenings, my organization decided to commission a broader sampling of employer views. Over the past few years, we have asked Hart Research to conduct five national surveys—not of CEOs, but of people who make hiring decisions—across the entirety of the U.S. economy, large, small, for-profit, not-for-profit.

Consistently, these studies reinforce what we learned in our convenings and focus groups. Consistently, the findings make it very clear that employers do not want the kind of truncated learning that policy leaders are promoting.

First, employers strongly endorse the importance of broad learning. Both in the 2013 survey and in the one we released in January of 2015, 80 percent of employers agreed that, whatever their major, all students need a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences.

Second, nine out of ten agreed that cross-cutting capacities like critical thinking, writing, and problem-solving were actually more important for job success than a job candidate’s specific major.

Third, and most importantly for graduates just starting your careers, employers strongly endorsed that combination of analytical and applied-learning experiences that now is a centerpiece—a signature—for liberal arts education at Mount Holyoke.

The 2015 survey explored in quite a bit of detail what kinds of applied-learning experiences would give students an advantage in being hired. Here are the top five learning experiences that employers think college students should have:

  • Internship/apprenticeship with company/organization (95%)
  • Senior thesis/project demonstrating knowledge, research, problem solving, communication skills (89%)
  • Field-based project in diverse community with people from different background/culture (87%)
  • Service-learning project with community organization (85%)
  • Research project done collaboratively with peers (82%)

So, in sum, employers will be highly supportive of that hands-on turn Mount Holyoke is bringing to a liberal arts education. Indeed, seven out of ten employers think that applied-learning experiences should be required for all students—which is, of course, exactly where Mount Holyoke is going.

So, As You Commence

Class of 2015, as you move into the next phase of your life, I know with certainty that Mount Holyoke has prepared you, not just well, but extraordinarily well, for the careers you will launch, for the further learning you will seek, and for the lives you want to live.

And I also know that Mount Holyoke has prepared you to take responsibility for our democracy and for that long-term project of creating a more just and sustainable world.

Congratulations on earning your degree—and double congratulations on the kind of liberal arts education you achieved at Mount Holyoke.

I know you will carry that Mount Holyoke passion for transformative learning with you to a world that urgently needs your minds, your creativity, and your values.

Recommended Readings on Liberal Education

  1. Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2015. The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  2. Carnochan, W. B. 2013. The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  3. National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  4. National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  5. Nussbaum, Martha C. 1998. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Roth, Michael S. 2014. Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  7. Schneider, Carol Geary. 2011. “‘Degrees for What Jobs?’ Wrong Question, Wrong Answers.” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 1.
  8. Scobey, David. 2011. “A Copernican Moment: On the Revolutions in Higher Education.” In Transforming Undergraduate Education: Theory that Compels and Practices that Succeed, edited by Don Harward, 37–50. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  9. Zakaria, Fareed. 2015. In Defense of a Liberal Education. New York: W. W. Norton.

Recommended Readings on Liberal Education and Career Success

  1. Hart Research Associates. 2013. It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  2. ———. 2015. Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  3. Humphreys, Debra, and Anthony Carnevale. 2013. “The Economic Value of Liberal Education.” Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  4. Humphreys, Debra, and Patrick Kelly. 2014. How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  5. Levy, Frank, and Richard J. Murnane. 2013. Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work. Third Way.