Hey, liberal-arts grads: Are you ready for the world?

Despite being well-educated, too many liberal-arts grads feel ill-prepared for life after university
By Steve Paikin - Published on April 15, 2019
Old Vic, the main building of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. (iStock/Peterspiro)
Old Vic, the main building of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. (iStock.com/Peterspiro)

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Graduates of Ontario’s colleges of applied arts and sciences emerge from their educational experience with a pretty clear understanding of what job they want to pursue. That’s the nature of that part of the post-secondary world: it’s designed to train you for work.

Not necessarily so for liberal-arts graduates, who typically spend four years trying to figure out what they’re passionate about and what the world’s big problems are — and then apply their talents and knowledge to take on those challenges.

“That journey starts at university but continues for the rest of their lives,” says William Robins, president of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. “We don’t only prepare students for a particular field, but also for a world that’s constantly changing.”

Robins made the comments at a recent lecture series on campus, attended by some “friends of Victoria.” (Full disclosure: I was in attendance, having been invited as an alumnus of the university.)

An undergraduate degree in the humanities was never necessarily meant to lead directly to a job, but rather to self-improvement and becoming a better citizen.

Having said that, Robins confesses that many of Vic’s students (and their parents) are increasingly wondering how their Bachelor of Arts degrees will eventually help advance their careers. We shouldn’t be surprised at that development. Governments, which fund the lion’s share of post-secondary education, and businesses, which expect grads to have the skills needed for a changing workplace, endlessly focus on that question — so why shouldn’t students, too?

The debate over what a university’s purpose should be has raged for hundreds of years. Benjamin Franklin argued that universities should build practical skills; Thomas Jefferson said that they should build character. Leaders of liberal-arts institutions are increasingly thinking about this question, too.

“How can we get you ready for what’s next in your life?” is how Robins puts it.

In 2003, Victoria University saw that many of its new students needed a more effective means of transitioning into the post-secondary world. So it took an innovative approach — a program called “Vic One,” which puts first-years in ultra-small classes that focus on conversation and creativity, rather than placing them in huge, depersonalized lecture halls with 1,000 other students. Vic One has been widely seen as a success.

The next big question that Vic and many other liberal-arts institutions are grappling with is how to send their graduates into the world (or off to their next adventure in post-secondary) better prepared for what’s to follow.

“We need to give them the confidence to be able to explain the skills they’ve learned at university,” Robins says. That mission was inspired partly by a student who once told him, “I’ve learned nothing useful here.”

When Robins replied that the student had learned to think critically and solve problems, the response was, “Well, of course I learned all that.” The student was unaware of how prized those skills would be in whatever came next in life. So Vic is establishing a new program designed to give grads added experiential learning, skills training, career preparation (connecting students with alumni mentors), and communications skills. The school expects to introduce it this fall.

“We are all ready for a shift in thinking,” Robins says. “Our students want to understand how their education will help them along the way. This is the new frontier. All universities are trying to figure this out.”

Victoria’s former chancellor Wendy Cecil concurs. “Students are hungry to figure out where they’re going,” she says.

Cecil, who now teaches a course at the university, says students frequently ask her how to craft a “life plan” after graduation. Her advice focuses on planning one decade at a time. “I tell them, ‘Here’s what you can reasonably expect to experience in the first decade after graduation, then the second, and so on,’” she says.

One thing Vic may have going for it is that, despite being part of the massive University of Toronto, it really does operate and feel like a small liberal-arts college. Victoria accepts only 800 new students a year; the total student population is about 3,300. Robins says that the one thing he most appreciates hearing from students is that “they don’t just feel like a number here.”

Strangely enough, Victoria’s dean of students, Kelley Castle, says cases of depression are down on campus — but cases of anxiety are up. Students are constantly comparing themselves to one another, fearful that they’re not keeping up or that life won’t work out as they hope.

“I try to let them know that so much of life’s successes happen by accident,” she says. “It’s who you meet along the way. If you understand that, maybe you won’t panic so much.”

“Agreed,” adds David Wright, a professor who teaches foreign affairs at Vic. “Find your passion. An undergraduate education has to do that for you. That’ll bring the anxiety levels down and bring the confidence levels up.”

“They’re so afraid to make mistakes,” says Cecil. “They’re not trained in how to manage mistakes or expectations. They need to know that mistakes don’t equal failure. They need to learn how to fail forward.”

Perhaps one of the saddest signs of the times was when one professor described walking down a hallway on the way to class, only to find 200 students waiting in that hallway, all with their noses in their smartphones, not talking to one another.

I bet the anxiety levels would decline and the confidence index would skyrocket if, somehow, this generation of students were to put their devices away from time to time.

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