Outlining the Importance of Liberal Arts for Adults

Outlining the Importance of Liberal Arts for Adults

by Walter Pearson | Dean

Adults approach higher education with occupational goals in mind. In the wake of all the insecurity of the recent economic troubles, they want to secure their careers. For some, the degree is a part of their strategy to advance where they currently work. For a significant share, the goal is to prepare for a jump to another field.

Only a minority choose a liberal arts major such as English, history or philosophy. This is in some part due to employer influence, particularly where policies restrict tuition support to “work-related” majors. This is also due to many of these students’ first-generation status. Students who are first generation, meaning they’re the first in their families to pursue higher education, will often face pressure to choose a major deemed “practical” by their support network.

Yet, we know that as citizens and as workers, a liberal education is important to adult learners. They need a well-rounded, interdisciplinary skill set which is achieved in the liberal arts. They face increased emphasis on communication skills (oral and written) in the job market. We know today that employers are less persuaded by the content of an individual’s major and more by his or her capacity for creative problem solving: “… a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”[1]

On top of this, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) recently conducted a survey that found the needs of employers stretched far beyond an introductory-level understanding of the relevant industry. More than 75 percent of employers said they wanted more emphasis on areas including critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication and applied knowledge in real-world settings.[2]

A clear argument can be made that these outcomes are developed in the encounter with liberal education that will be found in a university’s core or general education courses.

As graduates, adult students become advocates for the liberal arts. However, at entry, they are often skeptical of liberal arts requirements. Why are adult learners reluctant to study the liberal arts? One answer lies in the way they experienced these subjects in their earlier education. Too many of the subjects are studied in ways that seem removed from the lives of working adults. When we fail to help students make the connection between prior history and the events of today, or the connection between the study of mathematics and the decisions we make every day, shame on us.

A More Vital Vision

Leadership, career success and leading a meaningful life are the central missions of our programs. What could be more relevant to those goals than an engaging study of the hard decisions we make (ethics) or an exploration of history in which enduring themes connect with our lives? Skilled educators who work with non-traditional students use the lived experiences of these students as the subject matter, the fuel for an inquiry in which we explore the knowledge of others and construct new understandings of the world. This active form of learning is exactly what John Dewey was seeking: “the alternative to furnishing ready-made subject matter and listening to the accuracy with which it is reproduced is not quiescence, but participation, sharing, in an activity. In such shared activity, the teacher is a learner, and the learner (without knowing it) is a teacher.”[3]

Best Practices for Adult Learners

Adult programs at liberal arts colleges tend to have unique environments and practices. They are mission focused and tend to have small class sizes that feature writing and oral communication as key elements. These programs use a facilitation style for faculty with application, course presentations and discussion as major features of the learning environment. Class discussions are rich with shared experiences among peers sparking insight. Their flexible delivery formats enable adults to make progress toward the goal of completion.

Most of these programs seek to connect the liberal arts to vocational, career and lifelong learning through a robust core curriculum that features active learning. These programs seek to engage students in real-world problem solving and encourage them to evaluate and clarify their personal and professional ethics and values. Personalized advising and small classes keep the individual learner’s goals in view. Faculty professional development seeks to ensure faculty understand adult learners and have a facilitation style of instruction.

How Is This Experienced by the Graduates?

In the 2014 commencement at Loyola University Chicago, one of our graduates gave us some insight into the value adult students place in the liberal arts:

“I often thought that if I could just learn what I needed to learn, I could save time and money and move on with my life. I suppose that would be true, but it’s because of the core classes and the choice of electives offered that the world has truly become my oyster and I plan to use each pearl of wisdom I gained because it’s not just knowledge that I acquired on this journey.”[4]

A Closing Thought

The broader Jesuit mission at Loyola University Chicago seeks to awaken five hungers in our students.

  1. Integrated knowledge
  2. A moral compass
  3. Civic participation
  4. A global paradigm
  5. Adult spirituality

This broader mission, which goes beyond mere job preparation, is vital for our students and for our society. We cannot help but be concerned about the decline in public discourse. We must aim, by both methods and topics of education, for the formation of judgment and critical thinking.

As Dewey notes: “Democratic society is peculiarly dependent for its maintenance upon the use in forming a course of study of criteria which are broadly human. Democracy cannot flourish where the chief influences in selecting subject matter of instruction are utilitarian ends narrowly conceived for the masses, and, for the higher education of the few, the traditions of a specialized cultivated class.”[5] These concerns were evident in 1915 and are equally evident today.

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[1] Hart Research Associates, “It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success,” April 10, 2013. Accessed at

[2] Association of American Colleges and Universities, “It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success,” 2013. Accessed at

[3] John Dewey, Democracy and Education, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1916), page 167

[4] Micky Ansted, Speech given at Loyola University Chicago 2014 Commencement

[5] Dewey, page 200.


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