The Forum | General Education

Academic Excellence Means a Truly Liberal Education

July 15, 2013

What does it take to succeed in a 21st century economy? A graduate degree? Social media savvy? STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills?

All those things are certainly important and could help you get ahead in an extraordinarily competitive job market. But one business school professor has a different idea about the key ingredient for success in the modern economy.

Over at HuffPo, Professor John Delaney argues that what’s really required in today’s job market is what he calls “learning agility.”

Learning agility is:

“what happens when a lawyer is asked to maintain a robust social media presence or a financial professional is tapped to open a global office even with limited knowledge of the new country’s economy or culture, and yet they overcome their lack of experience and discomfort and find a way to simply make it work.

Those who are learning agile know what to do when they don’t know what to do.”

In other words, learning agility is about the ability to think on your feet, tackle new challenges and do things you might not have been specifically trained to do.

What can foster learning agility?

“[p]utting students in a variety of unfamiliar situations, requiring them to apply the concepts they have discussed in class and assessing their reactions. It is notable that these simulations are less about the results, and more about how students react and what they learn from the situation. Did they ask helpful questions? Did they work cooperatively with their teammates and utilize everyone’s perspectives?”

It seems that learning agility is what you gain from a serious, effective liberal arts education. A truly liberal education forces students to confront the unfamiliar, ask the right questions and learn from others. A strong core curriculum makes sure every student possesses a broad range of skills and the tools to tackle all sorts of different problems and challenges.

Unfortunately, an increasing number of college students are not getting this kind of education. It wasn’t long ago that Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa showed many college students show few, if any, gains in critical thinking and quantitative reasoning skills over four years. ACTA’s What Will They Learn™ project has shown that far too many colleges don’t require undergraduates to take basic, college-level courses in science, math, economics, foreign languages or history.

That is why ACTA’s fights for academic excellence, college accountability and strong core curricula are so important.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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