Liberal arts education faces a challenge: the proliferation of digital technologies throughout the disciplines threatens to transform liberal arts education into technical training. Both students and administrators pressure faculty to devote more and more instruction time to teaching the latest software applications so that graduates will immediately be able to respond to the demands of a just-in-time digital labor market, a labor market continually focused on whatever is next. As the value of higher education is increasingly measured by consumers looking at post-graduation work-placement rates, many of us face pressure to demonstrate the success of our programs through these placement rates. Such measures, however, assess only short-term achievement. The pressure to train students for immediate “success” often threatens to overshadow intellectual values such as critical thinking, problem solving, and the development of broad academic interests. The inherently interdisciplinary nature of the liberal arts, its refusal to focus myopically on teaching students one type of thinking or one set of skills, remains its key asset. The true value of a liberal arts education lies in the flexibility and adaptability that cross-disciplinary study affords students, especially those facing a just-in-time labor market. It is somewhat ironic that we find ourselves confronting such challenges in this place at this time, because digital technologies can provide excellent tools for furthering the goals of liberal education if used properly.
The general concerns addressed in this short essay are not new; I have been bothered by the growing tendency to teach software in lieu of critical thinking since my time in graduate school in the mid-’90s. Networked computing was just being introduced to liberal arts disciplines and I was studying and teaching in an English department that began experimenting with teaching writing in computer labs. Since that time, I have been on faculty at small liberal arts schools as well as state universities and have worked as a consultant for programs hoping to integrate digital technology into their liberal arts curricula; I draw my observations from the combination of these experiences. I have found that some institutions focus more intently on short-term successes while others are more concerned with long-term goals for their students. Recently, I taught a course focused on teaching research and public discourse skills to first-year students. My section chose contemporary labor issues as the focus of their class project, and their investigation of the ways outsourcing and offshoring are transforming the global economy as well as local labor markets heightened my concerns about the relationship between liberal arts education and technical training. Their study clarified for me the important difference between short-term and long-term placement goals and made me acutely aware of the importance of using digital technologies to further the goals of liberal education rather than to produce short-term job placements.1
The just-in-time digital labor market emerged in the 1990s in tandem with dot.com fever. As Terri Kelly suggests in her essay “A Brief History of Outsourcing,” American businesses began outsourcing some divisions in an attempt to offer more efficient services while simultaneously increasing their profits (Kelly). Accounting and communication divisions were easily outsourced because the digital revolution had transformed their media so thoroughly. Bookkeeping, payroll, and promotional campaigns that had once required physical inscription (ledgers, paychecks, card stock, video and audio tape) now required only ephemeral bytes.
The rise of outsourcing in the 1970s was of little concern to liberal arts educators, as manufacturing was the target. In the 1980s we saw the target of outsourcing shift from manufacturing to data processing. And, while such outsourcing did not directly affect our graduates’ abilities to find and keep work, the shift in outsourcing from manufacturing jobs to technology jobs, albeit low-end technology jobs, did not go unnoticed. Critics such as Donna Haraway, Stanley Aronowitz, and Andrew Ross questioned the effects of such temporary, unorganized, low-paid work on the working conditions of digital workers as a whole.
Today’s digital labor market, however, has been almost wholly transformed by outsourcing. The bursting of the “dot com bubble” in the late 1990s only hastened companies’ desires to outsource much of their technical work.2 Why keep a stable of highly-trained, highly-paid workers on staff when just-in-time outsourcing centers can be opened and closed rapidly offshore? Today, we see white-collar programming and design jobs being outsourced offshore to highly-trained workers who may or may not work in poor working conditions for substandard wages. Vivek Agrawal and Diana Farrell report that software developers who cost $60 an hour in the U.S. cost only $6 an hour in India (Agrawal).
Our students are entering a labor market in which the concept of “career” has changed radically from that of previous generations. Whereas the primary definition of career used to be a job or occupation regarded as a lifelong activity it is now the general path taken by someone, a path that will change course from time to time. This situation leads to the popular notion that today’s workers will have several careers between college and retirement. At present, we know that the early 21st century U.S. labor market rewards workers who are flexible and able to reinvent themselves; we must teach our students how to do so. Researchers like Eric Chabrow note that currently information technology outsourcing does not affect younger workers who possess the latest skills but rather aging workers whose technical skills have become obsolete. By 2003, nearly 6.9% of IT workers in their 50s were unemployed, compared to the industry average of 5.8% (Chabrow). At the same time, while entry-level jobs are not presently targeted for outsourcing, jobs that in the past represented the next rungs on the promotion ladder at many companies have been outsourced, making career advancement out of entry-level positions increasingly hard to negotiate in the traditional manner. Researchers are divided when it comes to predicting the total effect of offshoring on the U.S. economy. Some predict massive job losses; others predict job losses while also predicting that new jobs will be generated so that there may be a net gain of jobs (McKinsey).
As educators, we need to be mindful of such trends and predictions and think carefully about them. Jobs that are presently worked by former students will very likely one day no longer exist and advancement out of such jobs will likely require former students to creatively reinvent themselves. Responsible educators must account for such changes in labor markets as they arise. We must account for them in our degree, program, and course designs and we must account for them in our pedagogies. If our former students are not flexible enough to redesign themselves to be competitive for whatever these new jobs may be, we will have failed them.
This is a cautionary tale. The core characteristics of liberal arts education — critical thinking, broad academic interests, and creative, interdisciplinary knowledge — provide students with the intellectual flexibility to successfully negotiate shifting career paths. Training students in the latest software applications at the expense of teaching them critical, creative problem-solving skills ill prepares them for long-term success in the just-in-time labor market. While their newly-minted technical skills may be in immediate demand, they will wither in a work world characterized by rapid transformation. Such students will be just-in-time just once. And while they may produce high placement rates immediately after graduation, they will likely struggle to maintain their livelihoods and to develop successful careers beyond those initial entry-level positions.
Digital technology is not the problem; it is neither a bogeyman nor a panacea. We must be mindful how we teach our students technology and we must think carefully about the technical relationships we establish for them. They need the creative and flexible thinking to know how to solve technical problems on their own when they occur, to learn how to use technology in novel ways, to know how to use technology to accomplish things it was not originally designed to do; they need to know how to learn independently so that they can negotiate a labor market we cannot yet envision. Our students also need to be knowledgeable about vagaries of labor markets; they need to be workers who are savvy, critical thinkers able to transform labor markets so that working conditions remain humane, respectful, and fair; and they need to be able to transform themselves so that they can repeatedly be just-in-time. We cannot wholly predict what work-world transformations will take place next, but we can predict the value of a flexible, interdisciplinary liberal arts education to meeting the demands, whatever they may be, of labor markets that continue to morph into new permutations.
- I am indebted to Centenary College of Louisiana’s FYE 102 C (2005) for their research on this subject. This class’s investigation of outsourcing and offshoring illuminated for me the dangers of using technology unwisely in the classroom.
2. Eric Chabrow of Wall Street & Technology reports that unemployment in the information technology sector hovered around 2% during the dotcom heyday; by 2003, the IT unemployment rate had risen to 5.8%. Chabrow predicts that offshoring and technical obsolescence will continue to make that unemployment rate rise.
Agrawal, Vivek and Farrell, Diana. “Who Wins in Offshoring?” The McKinsey Quarterly , 2003 Special Edition: Global Directions, 2003.
http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/article_page.aspx?ar=1363&L2=7&L3=10&srid=6&gp=1 accessed June 2. 2005.
Aronowitz, Stanley, Cutler, Jonathan. Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Chabrow, Eric. “Is Offshoring the Major Reason for IT Unemployment?” Wall Street and Technology, October 23, 2003. http://www.wallstreetandtech.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=15600090 accessed June 2, 2005.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Kelly, Terri. “A Brief History of Outsourcing,” Global Envision. http://www.globalenvision.org/library/3/702/ accessed June 2, 2005.
McKinsey Global Institute. “Offshoring: Is It a Win-Win Game?” McKinsey Quarterly August 2003. http://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/publications/win_win_game.asp accessed June 24, 2005.
Ross, Andrew. Real Love: In Pursuit of Cultural Justice. New York: New York University Press, 1998.