Q&A: Peter Salovey

Why a liberal arts education?

The value of mental agility in a rapidly changing world.

The Yale Alumni Magazine regularly holds a conversation with Yale president Peter Salovey ’86PhD to provide a forum in which alumni can learn his views. (Interviews are conducted both in person and by e-mail and condensed for print.)

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

In this issue, Salovey discusses the value of a liberal arts education in college. View full image

Y: One hundred and ninety years ago, Yale produced a report that stated the case for a liberal arts education over training for a trade. Today, more and more colleges are leaning toward teaching professional skills. What’s your view on the value of the liberal arts?

S: Our world is changing at a rapid pace; technology is altering every aspect of our society. We cannot predict what the job market will be like in 10, 20, or 30 years. Some occupations will disappear, while others will undergo radical transformations in necessary competencies and desired employee attributes. To prepare for a future where job requirements will change in unpredictable ways, our students must be able to think critically across diverse fields. They must have agile minds. A liberal arts education prepares students to be flexible thinkers who can adapt to various environments.

Over the course of their lifetimes, our students will likely work in any number of roles. A liberal arts education provides them with transferable and adaptable abilities—to evaluate information, to communicate in a clear and compelling manner, to work as part of a team, and to create innovative solutions by drawing on knowledge across disciplines. These attributes are essential for future leaders to thrive and serve society, especially as the demands of their professions change over time.

Y: How would the liberal arts help people learn to switch gears?

S: Students learn to switch gears by assimilating knowledge from multiple sources and viewpoints. A liberal arts education is not simply about digesting discrete packets of information; it is a constant broadening of a student’s horizon. Liberal education is also associated with the ability to learn from others and through different experiences. From the classrooms to the dining halls, to the laboratories, to the libraries, to artistic studios and theaters, and to the athletic fields, our students are being challenged to exercise their minds, increasing their mental agility.

Y: You mentioned the importance of working as part of a team.

S: Today’s global challenges, such as mitigating climate change or controlling the spread of infectious diseases, cannot be addressed by working in silos. It takes a multitude of talents, backgrounds, interests, and skills to solve complex problems. Collaborations that cross borders, disciplines, and cultures are needed. For students to develop into leaders, they must be able to work effectively in teams.

Some parents have asked me if a liberal arts education will help their son or daughter find a job. The best way to address that question is with data: I recently looked at the Yale College Class of 2017’s first destination survey, which had excellent participation—92.4 percent of the graduating seniors responded. About 77 percent of the class is employed, 15 percent is in graduate or professional school, and 1.4 percent is in military service. I was also impressed to learn that the acceptance rate for first-time Yale College applicants matriculating to medical school last fall was 84 percent, as compared with the national rate of 41 percent. These numbers indicate that a liberal arts education leads to excellent outcomes for our students.

Y: A number of Yale undergraduate majors are also regarded as professional areas—for instance, engineering, computer science, and architecture. Is there a tension there?

S: I do not see a tension. I cannot stress enough that literacy in such fields is vital to a liberal arts education. Yale College integrates those disciplines into its broader model of liberal education to prepare students to solve problems and to think critically and imaginatively about the world. Completing those majors might well lead to employment in those fields, but many of those students go on to do something quite different.

Kyle Vanderlick, the Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering and former dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, used to say that engineering sits squarely between the humanities and the sciences. Engineers must identify and prioritize problems—in part by drawing on experiences that go beyond engineering. The humanities can help us understand the complexity of human challenges, while scientific research findings can provide the basis on which solutions might be developed. An engineer learns how to apply those sources of knowledge to improve lives and society.

1 comment

  • Chris Bulger
    Chris Bulger, 2:58pm May 16 2018 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I understand it is Dr. Salovey's job to advertise Yale's approach to undergraduate education - to help keep up the paltry consumer demand in the product.

    But I am intellectually embarrassed to read his argument when there is so much proof that Yale's approach is anything but liberal enough to prepare young people to be civilized. How many times will Black students need to be detained in their own dorms for sleeping? How many times will women on campus have to fear for their safety - from faculty? How much proof will it take to shatter the illusion that Yale faculty teach anything like liberal unbiased behavior?

    Yale had a school - the best in the world - at teaching people how to learn and cooperate without limitation from their unconsciencious bias filters. That school was the original SOM whose curriculum and orientation was designed to help people see. If that curriculum had been allowed to flourish - Yale would be the safest place on earth for diverse perspectives. For SOM's first 20 years, it's successful Alumni were virtually unanimous in declaring the Organizational Behavior program was the most valuable tool kit enabling their careers. Prospective students selected SOM over Harvard because of OB - and current students became wildly engaged.

    What did Yale do in response? The majority of the non-OB faculty - many of whom still sit today - helped support the banishment of that group fo scholars from the university. They were so terrified by the Lux et Veritas that the OB group provided that in a historic move in Yale history they allowed faculty governance to be suspended, hired a notorious union buster as Dean, gave him unilateral control over redrafting the mission statement. In one fell swoop they closed the best hope for Liberal education at Yale. Check the news archives if you think I exaggerate. This was the beginning of the era of Trump style scholarship and Yale was leading!

    I suppose this is a risk of benchmarking against Harvard. They managed to fire a Faculty member from the Government Department 40 years after Jorge Dominguez faced his first formal charges of sexual harassment. Of course in addition to the judgment provided by their liberal educations - they were helped to understand right and wrong by 1 million marching and sustaining a movement.

    Yale still attracts brilliant students who can teach teach other and are already prepared to succeed or have already done so by the time they enter the University. so the imperative for the faculty to get a liberal education must be integrity..... and perhaps to avoid that wave of bad press and lawsuits that hopefully are headed their way. #IGB2

    Chris Bulger

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