Ned Laff, Governors State University – Design Thinking

What is missing from a liberal arts education?

Ned Laff, Director at the Center for the Junior Year and teaching faculty at Governors State University, examines how a different kind of thinking can transform how this education is perceived in our society.

Dr. Ned Scott Laff (pronounced “laugh”) is currently the Director for the Center for the Junior Year at Governors State University. He was the Director for General Education, Director for Contractual Studies, Director for Service-Learning and Director for the Center for Engaged Learning at Columbia College in Columbia, SC.  He teaches interdisciplinary honors courses focusing on diversity, gender, social justice, and leadership for social change.  He currently is focusing on the nature of liberal arts education and the role of integrative mentoring in helping underserved students succeed.  His work challenges the myths surrounding liberal arts majors and how these majors can re-position themselves to meet the demand of a 21st century global economy without changing what we do in the liberal arts. His work also looks at how liberal learning helps students integrate their vocational purpose with their career goals, and how it influences students’ dispositions toward civic engagement. He is the editor of Identity, Learning, and the Liberal Arts in the New Direction for Teaching and Learning Series (No. 103, Fall 2005). He founded and edits The International Undergraduate Journal for Service-learning, Leadership, and Social Change ( ).  His work in service learning was recognized by the Washington Center in 2012 with the Civic Engagement Award.

Design Thinking


Liberal arts colleges, departments, the AACU, MLA, and others have been trying to defend the value and worth of a liberal art education. They use familiar phrases like critical thinking, ethical reasoning, intellectual curiosity, appreciating different opinions, and more.  But phrases like these unintentionally reinforce the myth that the liberal arts cannot maintain its integrity and be marketable. All who are making these arguments worry they are witnessing the erosion of the liberal arts. 

Those trying to defend the liberal arts tend to fall prey to “either/or” arguments about degree marketability that rely on conventional ways students and parents are taught to think about majors.

What is missing in the discussion is design-thinking.

Design-thinking challenges our conventional understanding of college curriculum.  The curriculum emerges as students design fields of study into an integrated liberal arts education from the core curriculum, the major, electives, leadership opportunities on campus and experiential learning.  Fields of study emerge when students use their “personal educational goals” to direct how they design their education.  This opens up their “hidden marketability”. It is not about the major; it about an integrated liberal arts undergraduate experience.

Design-thinking can help liberal arts colleges reverse enrollment trends and reposition liberal arts majors without asking faculty to change anything they do. We keep the integrity of the liberal arts while demonstrating marketability.  Design-thinking gives us an answer to the Dead Poet’s Society — of course you can study Shakespeare and go to medical school.

  1. Lynn Macan

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