By providing a strong liberal arts foundation, Rollins College is preparing students not only for their first job out of college, but for a lifetime of learning and adapting to change.
By Anthony Wade
The liberal arts may well be rooted in ancient Greece, where public debate became an esteemed form of communication and higher learning reportedly was first shaped by the teaching of grammar, logic, rhetoric and music, along with arithmetic, astronomy and geometry.
Yet, Grant Cornwell, Ph.D., certainly has done his part in defining the modern view of such an education today. Cornwell is generally well recognized for his work in liberal arts learning. Also, he is president of Rollins College in Winter Park, which means while his words resonate globally, they can be especially impactful across Interstate 4 in Central Florida.
The value of a liberal arts education in a digital age? Cornwell leaves no room for doubt.
Best Prepared to Engage
“The world is facing such complex issues, and the jobs of tomorrow don’t necessarily exist for today,” said Cornwell, who arrived at Rollins as president in 2015, leaving the same position at The College of Wooster in Ohio. “Narrow job training isn’t going to prepare students for a lifetime of careers in industries that don’t exist right now, nor will it prepare them to critically and collaboratively approach the pressing issues of tomorrow. Our world moves so fast and changes at a rapid pace, and by structuring the mind in such a way to adapt to and approach head on this change, liberal arts students are best prepared to engage in the 21st century.”
In turn, Cornwell continued, Rollins is focused on career preparation not for tomorrow, but for years down the road.
“We don’t believe in preparing you for your first job after college,” Cornwell explained. “We believe in preparing you for a lifetime of learning, of adapting to change and taking a real leadership role in managing that change. We’re preparing you for a lifelong career where you can navigate and succeed in the ever-evolving technological, social and political world in which we live.
“Think about major problems of our day — terrorism, climate change, global economic instability — they will not be solved by applying one, singular, narrowly focused discipline but instead require a number of people with a depth and breadth of learning who can connect ideas across disciplines and who can work collaboratively with people from different backgrounds and fields, people who are not like them and do not think like them, to find a solution.”
What Employers Want
While the liberal arts often are all about theory and the abstract, proof of its value is very much evident in concrete statistics from the American Association of Colleges and Universities, based in Washington, D.C.
In a 2013 online survey (Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success), conducted for AACU by Hart Research Associates, 93 percent of employers agreed that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems was more important than their undergraduate major. Similarly, 95 percent indicated they give hiring preference to college graduates with “skills that will enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace.”
“When we think of an education that’s going to be most relevant to employees in the 21st century, it’s going to be an education that equips them to be flexible and adaptable to a changing world,” affirmed Emily Russell, Ph.D., the associate dean of curriculum at Rollins. “We know the pace of change in technology is really accelerating and that a kind of narrow training in a single skill set might be relevant immediately upon graduation, but it isn’t going to support 50 years of career change.”
“We’re preparing you for a lifelong career where you can navigate and succeed in the ever-evolving technological, social and political world in which we live.”
– Grant Cornwell, Ph.D.
As part of curriculum development at Rollins, the what being taught as well as the how it is been taught are analyzed and assessed based on student outcomes following graduation. “Both are critical. Content is going to be important, but it’s really important for students to understand an analytic method or a method of investigation,” said Russell, who joined the Rollins English Department in 2007.
Notably, that content at Rollins encompasses the sciences. The popular acronym STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Math — is far from neglected. All students, for example, must take a science-lab class to fulfill their general-education requirements. Also, while business majors are most popular among students, biology and psychology rank highly, too, cited Russell.
At the same time, regardless of subject matter, professors infuse their curricula with the likes of written communication, critical thinking, information literacy and ethical reasoning — for required courses within majors and for elective courses, according to Jenny Cavenaugh, Ph.D., the dean of faculty at Rollins. “All of those skills are embedded in the classes we’re teaching,” she asserted.
The T-Shaped Approach
Cavenaugh points to what is called the T-shaped approach to educating students — with T-shaped individuals being people with the depth of academic knowledge complemented by a breadth of understanding about working in groups, cutting across boundaries, being flexible and finding connections with others, among other components.
Essentially, a T-shaped curriculum takes a deep dive into an area of study while resting on a strong liberal arts foundation. The approach is born from research that emerged years ago from Michigan State University.
At Rollins, Cavenaugh explained, students take half of their credits in their major, “but the full other half of their college education is involved in the breadth part.”
“What you find when you connect both the breadth and depth is an individual with a sense of purpose, a sense of confidence, who knows how to take risks, somebody who has clearly articulated both their aspirations and their values,” described Cavenaugh, holder of the Winifred M. Warden Endowed Chair of Theatre and Dance and the 2010 recipient of Rollins’ Arthur Vining Davis Award for outstanding teaching, scholarship and service to the college.
Cornwell put it another way. …
“Understanding and being able to apply scientific and mathematical principles are critical to a number of industries, but so is the ability to contextualize problems around which you apply those principles,” the Rollins president concluded. “One can’t effectively improve water conditions in developing nations without having an understanding of the cultural context of the people there, for instance. One can’t effectively secure grants to conduct scientific research without being able to communicate clearly your needs and your research agenda.
“A liberal arts education supplies a well-rounded scope of knowledge, allowing you to delve deeply into a subject — and STEM is part of that — and to pull across a number of disciplines to strengthen your knowledge base. This kind of 360 education prepares students well for the job market and allows them to stand out.”