3 Predictions For The Future Of Liberal Arts

I went to Trinity College in Connecticut – a liberal arts school that helped me become the well-rounded individual I am today. Love or hate liberal arts, it’s alive and well right now in the U.S. – but for how long? Will my experience at Trinity be the same for the next few generations of enrolled students? Probably not. Thanks to the influx of technology, MOOCs, and rising tuition costs … Sam Cooke was right when he said ‘a change is gonna come.’

So what could happen to the current liberal arts model? When will each prediction happen? Am I completely off and just guessing? You be the judge. I offer up just a few ideas for where I think liberal arts is headed in the relatively near future.

Technology Will Play A Critical Role (Not In The Way You Think)

apple steve jobs liberal arts

Image courtesy of Apple, Inc.

Liberal arts schools, like all other schools, are seeing a surge of technology into their classrooms. That’s widely reported and basically inevitable at this point. But my prediction is moreso about how liberal arts will impact technology (rather than the other way around).

Startups and Silicon Valley companies are getting more and more engineering and tech jobs filled every day. They’ll soon realize they need more creative thinking individuals who can harness their liberal arts background to marry the beauty of quality design and useful ideas. Think Steve Jobs here. There’s a reason he once said “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”

Liberal Arts Online Will Slowly Become A Thing.

liberal arts online

Image courtesy 123rf.com

Right now, MOOCs are basically all about building real world skills. With the exception of a few sources like EdX (the Harvard part at least), Massively Open Online Courses are an exercise in skill-building. There’s very little liberal arts presence. That will start to change over the coming years. The importance of a liberal arts education is not in question (nor should it be) – but the focus has certainly shifted away from it.

Right now, we still consider the only way to attain a liberal arts education is to attend a brick and mortar institution. I agree that face-to-face learning is still the best method of getting a liberal arts education, but it shouldn’t be the only way. If you’re starting a MOOC or already running one, it might be time to consider deploying more liberal arts courses to ensure we’re not just raising a generation of computer scientists who can’t tie their shoes.

Campuses Will Transform – Rather Than Vanish

Dartmouth campus - courtesy of Wikipedia

Dartmouth campus – courtesy of Wikipedia

If I read another story about how the typical college campus is going to magically crumble and vanish overnight due to the onset of MOOCs and online learning, I’ll scream. Dramatic? Yes. So are these stories. I think it’s time we give campus administrators a little more credit and assume they are bridging the gap between the old way of doing things and this newfangled ‘technology’ everyone is talking about. As someone who has been in higher education for the better part of a decade, I can say with a degree of certainty that campuses are not going anywhere. They’re simply changing. Doubly so for liberal arts schools.

The presence of an actual physical campus will be critical for many learners who simply can’t get a good education online. Physical school campuses will be a hybrid or hyflex learning model that utilizes both in-person learning coupled with the power of online education. It’s win-win and means that schools will be better … not dust. (I hope I’m right on this one.)


  1. Ev Corum

    February 20, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Jeff Dunn has made some interesting predictions for the future of liberal arts education, and while I tend to agree with him, it might be possible to go even a little further in predicting what the future may hold in store for us. The earliest Western philosophers understood that change was inevitable and, really, the only constant in life.

    Technology will change schools–all schools–not just liberal arts schools. I was educated at Central Missouri State College, which had begun its existence a century before as a “normal” school, one that produced teachers for the state. I happend to be in the very last graduating class of the college, as well as in the very first graduating class of Central Missouri State University; now it is called the University of Central Missouri. I dwell on this because it demonstrates that most institutions change with the times. As for technology, we have dealt with that since the first proto-human picked up two stones and created a flint cutting tool; nowadays people use smart phones and tablets to manipulate their environment, so we ought not to be worried about technology, as were are–so to speak–old hands at it. What the new technology offers us is an opportunity to enhance learning by connecting students across time and space with other students, instructors, and guest experts. One of my students recently attended a lecture given by Darwin’s current “bulldog,” Richard Dawkins; the student pulled out his cell phone, recorded the presentation, and posted it in our online classroom for the rest of us to watch.

    I’m not sure what “liberal arts will become a thing” means, but there is no denying that the liberal arts and humanities must reassert a presence in the modern and future academy. Liberal arts, along with the STEM classes (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) TOGETHER will reveal more universal truths about the human condition than either one can do alone. We can appreciate and make good use of the intellectual rigor and precision of the hard sciences as well as the the metaphorical language of a story well-told in prose, poetry, or drama, not to mention the emotion expressed through music or dance, or the importance of form, line, shape, texture, and other elements in a painting or sculpture. Everything together contributes to our fuller understanding of the world around us. Without the interdisciplinary intellectual ferment inspired by Lorenzo de’ Medici in 15th Century Florence, how would the Italian Renaissance ever have happened? And are we poised for another such “rebirth” soon?

    When I graduated from the University of Kansas–a public research university–I said to my wife, “We will always live within the sound of campanile bells.” That hasn’t happened–remember that change factor–because for the last fifteen years I have taught online. Currently I teach for the American Public University System, a regionally accredited online university which, I am proud to say, has the largest footprint of any entity in Charles Town, West Virginia, the “greenest” buildings possible, and not a single student or faculty member in a classroom anywhere to be seen. Did I mention I live in Florida and go to work every day “remotely”?

    Change in education is in the air, and I embrace it. Whether on ground or online, I look forward to entering a virtual classroom (even if it is the shape and size of a helmet), twisting a dial or punching some buttons, and being transported to the African savannah, much as that described in Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Veldt.” In that story, escape was the intended consequence; imagine if learning about another culture or geographical area was the intention. Education is about to get really interesting.

    • Jeff Dunn

      February 20, 2013 at 3:06 pm

      Thanks for the insightful comment! Truly appreciate it. Just to clarify, I said ‘Liberal Arts Online (emphasis on Online here) Will Become A Thing’ meaning that bringing liberal arts into online learning will be critical down the line. I’m already a big fan of liberal arts of course. Hope that helps!

      • Ev Corum

        February 20, 2013 at 7:12 pm

        Thanks, Jeff, I couldn’t agree with you more about the need for liberal arts, online or on ground–they both have a place. Stephen Hawking is touting the death of Philosophy, but Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson says in his excellent “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge,” that “The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities.”