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The Value of Liberal Arts

Using complex algorithms and code-named projects, Google deduced that the very skills developed at liberal arts universities are critical assets in the high-tech marketplace. The tech giant, it seems, got it right. And Bethel’s been doing it all along.

By Michelle Westlund ’83, senior content specialist, with contributions by Jenny Hudalla ’15, content specialist, and Cherie Suonvieri ’15, content specialist

September 18, 2018 | 12:30 p.m.

Liberal Arts Graphic

Liberal Arts is about more than an education. It's about equipping students with a valuable skill set for the world after graduation.

If you google Google, you’ll find that it was founded in 1996 by two Stanford University Ph.D. students and is now the number one search engine in the world.The name is so much a part of popular vernacular that it’s now commonly used as, well, a verb. 

It seems entirely logical that the two brilliant computer scientists who created the world’s most dominant search engine would apply their elite tech skills toward building their company. And they did. Operating on the conviction that “only technologists can understand technology, Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.”Managers at Google were promoted to their supervisory roles due to their deep technical expertise.

In 2009, Google statisticians turned their sights toward a new frontier: building better bosses at Google itself. The code-named Project Oxygen crunched numbers on hiring, firing, performance reviews, and feedback surveys. The results were shocking, at least to a tech giant. Among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top managers, seven were soft skills, including areas like communication, listening, empathy, and critical thinking and problem solving.3

But those results don’t shock anyone at liberal arts universities like Bethel, where an emphasis on holistic education helps students develop “the skills employers will always want: the ability to think critically, solve complex problems, communicate clearly, and be creative and innovative,” says Ray VanArragon, Bethel University professor of philosophy. 

“The most valuable skill set in our culture is precisely the one gained most effectively via the study of the liberal arts and sciences.”

— Mark Bruce

The timeless value of liberal arts

A liberal arts education guides students through the study of multiple academic disciplines, such as the humanities, the fine arts, the natural sciences, and the social sciences, each with its own method of study, approach to discovery, and means of expression. It provides breadth and depth of insight, historical context, and understanding of one’s own culture and the cultures of others.

The value of this kind of broad-based education has come under fire in recent years, as increasing tuition costs prompt students to consider the immediate marketability of their degrees. Indeed, enrollment in arts and humanities majors has declined nationally. The University of Minnesota reports that their enrollment in arts and humanities majors has followed national trends, with a decline in degrees awarded in English, history, and political science in the last five years. And the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point has taken the drastic measure of discontinuing a number of arts and humanities majors in order to address fiscal challenges.4

Yet no less an authority than Apple founder Steve Jobs had this to say about his groundbreaking company: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”5

Bethel’s been doing just that for years—combining a strong liberal arts foundation with training in the hands-on skills required for students’ areas of expertise. This approach equips students with a timeless skill set that is readily transferable in an ever-changing job market. “In a culture permeated by data,” says Mark Bruce, associate professor of English, “the most valuable skill is not about generating data, but rather about making sense of data, understanding what it means to people and helping people understand what to do with it. This will be the most marketable skill of the 21st century.”

And the liberal arts do this naturally. “Humans are complex creatures,” continues Bruce. “The most deeply human creations—literature, art, philosophy, music, theater—are places where all the things that make us so complicated come together. To learn to make sense of these things is to learn the art of sense-making at the highest level…In other words, the most valuable skill set in our culture is precisely the one gained most effectively via the study of the liberal arts and sciences.”

Strong support for liberal arts

But don’t just take our word for it. As universities weigh declining enrollment numbers in arts and humanities—and as students weigh the market value of their degree programs—voices from diverse sectors of business and education are weighing in with strong liberal arts support. 

A series of articles in renowned business magazine Forbes notes the career success of liberal arts graduates, including a story on Stuart Butterfield, cofounder and CEO of Slack Technologies, a messaging-software company with a private market valuation of $2.8 billion. Slack’s user-friendly innovation is grounded in a creative process championed by Butterfield, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy, and employees like Anna Pickard, editorial director, who earned a degree in theater. And like Slack, major industry players like Facebook and Uber are now vying for the most talented nontechnical employees, particularly in sales and marketing.6

Across the ocean, as longtime tech leader Japan struggles with diminishing international status in electronics, one esteemed professor has an idea about why. “The biggest culprit of Japan’s waning international competitiveness in electronics is an accumulation of changes for the worse in university curriculums and entrance exam systems that encourage both undergraduate and postgraduate engineering students to shun the liberal arts, especially humanities,” says Takamitsu Sawa, distinguished professor of Shiga University, in the October 2016 Japan Times. “Technologies combined with liberal arts are necessary and indispensable for both the computer-driven third industrial revolution—which started in the 1990s and is nearing completion—and the fourth, which has just begun and is being driven by artificial intelligence capable of engaging in deep learning… The fourth industrial revolution is making it all the more essential to combine liberal arts and technologies.”7

And closer to home, a study by Concordia College—which, like Bethel, is a member of the Minnesota Private College Council—reviewed full-time job postings from the last two years in Minnesota and four bordering states. Using big-data tool TalentNeuron Recruit, skill requirements from more than 390,000 postings were analyzed. The results? The top 10 most frequently listed requirements were all soft skills. The most sought-after skill was oral and written communication, followed by marketing, detail-oriented, problem-solving, integrity, organizational skills, creativity, work independently, self-motivated, and team-oriented.8

A unique blend of faith and learning

While a chorus of divergent voices is uniting in support of liberal arts, Bethel doesn’t just follow along—because there’s more to Bethel than liberal arts. Mark Bruce picks up where he left off: “The most valuable skill set in our culture is precisely the one gained most effectively via the study of the liberal arts and sciences,” he reminds us. “And guess what? We already do that better than just about anyone through a unique combination of top-shelf scholars and teachers in the various disciplines, with one of the most robust, comprehensive, and coherent liberal-arts-focused general education programs out there. And that’s not even the half of it: We also do that in a way that goes far, far beyond mere ‘marketable skills’ into the matters of humanity, spirituality, and emotion; the ideas of what it means to be a flourishing human being, loved by God, within the realities of our world, and not simply a piece of hardware whose value is only determined by its potential to produce capital for corporations.”

What Bruce refers to is Bethel’s distinctive Christian liberal arts emphasis, one that is rooted in a liberal arts approach to gaining skills and knowledge, and seeks to integrate a dynamic and active Christian faith into every area of life, ultimately nurturing every student toward Christian maturity in scholarship, leadership, and service. The Bethel University College of Arts & Sciences Catalog describes the integration this way: “We believe that the Christian faith is relevant to every area of life, the integrative principle for the entire curriculum, and a foundational area of study for all learners.” 

What this looks like—in academic department after department—is students and faculty together asking challenging questions, wrestling with difficult topics, bringing authentic skepticism and wonder to areas as diverse as history, physics, English, design, and computer science. “While our department can train students to write good programs, a Christian education means they’re also prepared to make good decisions as image-bearers of Christ,” says Deborah Thomas, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science.

As students engage in this hard work of integration, something life-giving happens: transformation. “Often, first-year students struggle with questions of their faith, or finding their purpose, or choosing their major,” says Jamie Dolieslager, associate professor of human kinetics and applied health sciences. “But teaching various levels of courses from general education to advanced senior level, I am privileged to watch the transformation that occurs over the course of four years.”

Bethel aims to graduate students with a “storm-hardy” faith, as President Jay Barnes likes to describe it. This kind of faith is anchored in an authentic relationship with Jesus, grounded in biblical truth, and naturally integrated into every area of study and experience. It’s robust, resilient, and real.

Bethel’s blend of faith and learning is unique, says Bruce. “Overall what I see Bethel doing that I don’t see anywhere else is that when we talk about being a Christian liberal arts university, we take all of those components seriously,” he explains. “We’re actually a university—a place where you’re going to get great diversity in viewpoints, where there’s very little that you can’t address. And we take the Christian part equally seriously and don’t see it being in conflict with the university part…That’s what I love about Bethel. We don’t always hit it perfectly all the time, but we’re going to make faith and university work together, fully, on both sides.”

Liberal arts: practical and applicable

While Bethel has been marrying liberal arts and hands-on learning for years, a new initiative launched in fall 2017 intentionally focuses on giving students an edge in the ever-evolving job market. The Relevant. Experiential. Applied. Learning. (R.E.A.L.) Experience exposes students to a variety of hands-on learning activities that equip them with the skills employers are looking for. Students identify professional skills that will set them apart as they graduate. Then they map out a personal action plan to develop those skills through coursework, research, extracurricular activities, and internships, recording their reflections on the significance of their experiences along the way. By the time they graduate, they have a well-rounded portfolio that demonstrates their hands-on learning experience to future employers.

“This concept of reflective learning is what prepares students for the world after Bethel,” says Deb Sullivan-Trainor, vice president and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “It’s about more than walking out the door with a job—it’s about learning to think well, engage complex questions, and understand historical and social context. This is true, whole education. This is what the liberal arts are all about.”

And students are participating in whole education wholeheartedly. According to the 2017 National Survey of Student Engagement, 98% of Bethel seniors have participated in at least one “high-impact practice”—like studying abroad, completing an internship, conducting research with a faculty member, or volunteering through service learning—and 88% have participated in at least two. “Those numbers are through the roof,” says Joel Frederickson, associate dean of institutional assessment and accreditation. “Our seniors have scored consistently higher than the national average for years.”

As for employment outcomes? Bethel’s commitment to exposing students to real-world environments before graduation may explain why alumni enjoy very favorable employment rates. A 2017 survey of 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year Bethel alums indicates the average unemployment rate is just 1.5%, compared with 4.1% nationally.

Faith. Liberal arts. Expert skills. Real-world experience. That’s the Bethel distinctive. “Students who choose to attend other liberal arts universities will get a liberal arts foundation and might have some hands-on opportunities, but they won't find a comprehensive, faith-based program like the one we’ve created at Bethel,” says Carmen Shields, chief marketing officer. “It focuses on outcomes and prepares students for immediate entry into the workforce—with a strong liberal arts foundation, the technical skills required in their area of expertise, and a variety of intentional real-world experiences that benefit the organizations who hire them.”

VanArragon thinks there’s world-changing potential in that distinctive. “We prepare students for the job market, but we also seek to help them become whole and holy persons whose lives are centered on Jesus Christ,” he says. “At Bethel, we never lose sight of that. It’s a special thing we get to do here—and I believe it’s changing the world for the better.”


 1“Google Technology Company,” Wikipedia, wikipedia.org; additional reference: Computer Business Review,cbronline.com and Techopedia, techopedia.com
2“The surprising thing Google learned about its employees—and what it means for today’s students” by Valerie Strauss, quoting Cathy N. Davidson, The Washington Post, Dec. 20, 2017. 3“Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss,” The New York Times, March 12, 2011.
4“Declining enrollment in arts and humanities raises concerns in CLA,” The Minnesota Daily,  April 18, 2018.
5“Steve Jobs: ‘Technology Alone Is Not Enough,’” The New Yorker, Oct. 7, 2011.
6“That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket,” Forbes, Aug. 17, 2015.
7“Liberal arts studies are key to Japan’s economic revival,” The Japan Times, Oct. 24, 2016.
8“Big data speaks up for soft skills,” Minnesota Private Colleges Newsletter, March 2018

Bethel's R.E.A.L. Experience

The R.E.A.L. Experience is about preparing students for life after Bethel. Beginning with a strong foundation in the liberal arts and moving into their major of choice, students are exposed to a wide variety of hands-on learning activities that equip them with the skills employers are looking for, giving them an edge in the job market and setting them up for success in a rapidly changing world.

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