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Big-picture Thinking

In today's interconnected world, employers want liberal arts students who can look beyond their majors and connect the dots

By Paul Clark

Distributing storyboards. Organizing meetings with the script and production crews. Conducting research for the film. Keeping his boss happy. As assistant to the director of the upcoming film "The Tomb," currently in preproduction in New Orleans, Andrew Norman '08 draws deeply upon the liberal arts education he experienced at UNC Asheville.

His job as director Mikael Håfström's right-hand man employs not only his degree work as a Multimedia Arts & Sciences graduate, but it also brings in the math, science and psychology classes he took as part of UNC Asheville's liberal arts curriculum.

"I took Patrick Foo's class in Research Methods for fun," Norman said, citing a class outside of his major, "and it not only reinforced my research in my major, but it also reinforced my ability to research for this film. I'm an assistant, but I want to be a producer. Producers have to do a lot of research. Professor Foo made sure I was going about everything in the right way."

A Music Technology major early on, he completely changed direction after taking a class in mass communication and seeing films he doesn't believe he would have seen had he gone to a non-liberal arts school.

"Taking what you learn in one discipline and applying it to another allows you to think freely and not just be stuck on one problem," Norman said from his office in New Orleans. "You can think of solutions to that problem in so many ways."

Employers say that's the kind of thinking they are looking for. While they want employees to come to them with a specific sets of skills, they also want them to be able to think critically. By exposing students to wide ranges of seemingly unrelated arts and sciences, UNC Asheville teaches them to think in new ways, connecting dots that they didn't know existed.

Creating Critical Thinkers

David Kaufman-Moore graduated in May 2012 with a degree in business management and administration. From classes in sociology and anthropology, he learned about the dynamics of human interaction—knowledge that helped him in his business classes, he said.

"Knowing how to design an electrical load for a motor doesn't teach you to interface with the board of directors or manage three people under you and an intern," said Bob Kendrick, president and CEO of Avista Business Development Corporation. Avista is a not-for-profit lending institution based in Weaverville near Asheville. Kendrick has found that skills learned in a liberal arts education are needed in the business world.

"If you studied psychology or sociology or literature, you're better at understanding group dynamics and you understand where people are coming from when they make a business decision," he said.

"Liberal arts is not math, and it's not science. It's understanding the human condition."

Classically, the liberal arts included the arts, humanities, sciences, language, mathematics and other studies. UNC Asheville's iteration of it is highly prized. In its annual college rankings issue, U.S. News & World Report ranked UNC Asheville the eighth-best liberal arts public college in America, based on such indicators as freshman retention and graduation rates, as well as the strength of the faculty.

This type of education "lays the foundation for being a quick study and someone who can adjust to new learning environments during the course of their careers," said Bill Spellman, a UNC Asheville History professor and director of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges on campus. "The accountancy major here is grounded in humanities, foreign language and math, so students are at an advantage that enhances professional skills."

Every day, Spellman and the rest of the faculty reaffirm their commitment to the liberal arts through Inquiry ARC, a new program that encourages students to engage in critical thinking in class and elsewhere. Inquiry ARC is an acronym for "Inquire, Apply, Reflect, Communicate," which are stages in the process of approaching a given problem with a critical eye. With the university's support, faculty are encouraged to create projects for students aimed specifically at enhancing critical-thinking skills. Such a commitment pays in many ways.

Liberal Arts at Work

"A liberal arts education translates into greater success in the job market," employment analyst John Challenger at Challenger, Gray & Christmas said in April. The company is a national outplacement firm that helps place employees following layoffs. Unemployment among college graduates then was 4.3 percent, compared to 8.3 percent overall. "The advantages of a liberal arts education accrue over a career," he said. "Exposing students to a wide range of cultures gives them broader interests throughout their lives."

This helps them when they change careers, which employment analysts say will happen a half-dozen times for graduates these days. Such lateral movement demands that students learn more than a specific set of skills, said Patrick Bahls, an associate professor of Mathematics at UNC Asheville.

"If all they take is math, they get set in one way of looking at problems and at the world," Bahls said. "Math can be sterile if not inflected with [other areas of understanding]; you need to see how math has impacted culture. You need an environmental studies course and a physics course to see math applied in different contexts."

More typically than not, students appreciate a liberal arts education several years after they graduate, said UNC Asheville associate professor of Psychology Patrick Foo, who taught the Research Methods class that is helping filmmaker Norman in New Orleans. "What they're finding is that the graduates move up in management positions much more easily than some of their more narrowly trained colleagues. They work on problem-solving better."

The rapid pace of change in the world makes adaptability necessary, even vital. The people most successful at that will be the ones who have the broadest worldviews and skills at assimilating diverse (and divergent) ways of thinking—the very hallmarks of the liberal arts education.

"We hear so much about globalization," Spellman said. "Students who have an understanding of cultures outside their own political and economic worlds learn critical skills they need for special aptitudes required in engineering or, say, marketing.

"If we were an insular nation, those professional skills would be all you need. But in a global environment, you need critical skills and you need empathy. The liberal arts are about getting students involved in the conversation."



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