FARMINGTON — Some educators and economists have been pushing for a new approach to higher education since the Great Recession hit, hoping to better prepare students for a tough job market.
They believe more colleges should shift toward job training and high-tech degrees, replacing the traditional liberal arts programs that teach a broad spectrum of subjects instead of focusing on one field.
A prominent Maine businessman and prestigious scholar exchange program, however, recently defended the value of a liberal arts degree by supporting the efforts of the University of Maine at Farmington.
Fletcher Kittredge, founder and chief executive officer of telecommunications company GWI Inc., pushed back against the criticisms during a speech he gave recently at the small state liberal arts college in Franklin County.
He told a large crowd of mostly college students and professors that these attacks fail to acknowledge that many entrepreneurs and business leaders, including himself, have liberal arts backgrounds.
Kittredge, 51, has a bachelor’s degree in English from Colby College, the private liberal arts college in Waterville. He went on to get a master’s degree in computer science from Harvard University, but told the UMF students that his undergraduate degree provided the foundation for his success.
“The liberal arts education was designed as an American invention to educate the leaders of the world,” he said.
Rob Lively, associate provost at UMF, announced a few days after the speech that the college was recognized as a 2012 Fulbright Scholar top producer, a distinction based on a college’s performance in the competitive international exchange program for educators.
The recognition takes into account the college’s size, number of scholars in the program and several other academic standards, according to Lively, who is also dean of academic services. UMF has about 2,000 full-time students.
Two professors in the creative writing department at UMF are taking part in the program this academic year, which is a strong showing compared to other small colleges, he said.
Lively said the award shows that the academic community still supports a liberal arts educational model. Professors are selected because the program wants them to teach students, do research and share ideas with other educators globally, he said.
Gretchen Legler received the award to teach in Bhutan, a small Buddhist country in the eastern Himalayas. She is studying the culture and plans to write a book on their unique approach to happiness.
Jeffrey Thomson is studying, teaching poetry and writing courses as a resident professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He plans to gather material to recount his family’s immigration experience in a collection of poems.
There are also seven other faculty members at UMF who are former Fulbright scholars, according to the college.
“For a small campus like this, that’s unusual to have this many Fulbrighters on staff,” Lively said.
‘A little bit of everything’
College students will be entering an economy being driven by technology, which is redefining the jobs humans will be doing in the near future, Kittredge said during his speech at UMF.
His own company has been expanding broadband Internet access across Maine, as well as installing fiber-optic technologies to improve access in rural Maine communities, he said.
New technology is constantly breaking down barriers to success, connecting a fast-paced global economy by making it easier for people to grow businesses regardless of their location, he said.
But Kittredge warned these same breakthroughs pit college graduates seeking jobs against robots and computers, making it more important to learn skills that can’t be duplicated by technology.
“Don’t end up doing something that can be done better by a robot or computer,” he said.
He told them instead to strive to be lifelong learners of skills that a liberal arts education still provides. Students who study English, history and the other liberal arts subjects that promote critical thinking will fare much better in a job market where innovative leaders thrive, he said.
“The type of leader from liberal arts is an entrepreneur model; they need to know a little bit of everything,” he said.
Kittredge also believes that liberal arts majors should plan on going to graduate school. That helped him reach his goals of starting an Internet business after landing a job at a computer company when he graduated from Colby College, he said.
“You’re going to have to keep going back to school and keep learning,” he said. “The sad stories are people in their 50s who need to get a job but can’t because they didn’t keep learning.”
“The whole point of an education should be to nurture that intellectual curiosity, not to be training,” he said.
David Robinson — 861-9287