Liberal Arts Degrees

Here is the text of my piece promised earlier this summer, which has appeared in Canton Family Life.


The engineering major asks “How does it work?”
The business major asks “How much will it cost?”
The liberal arts major asks “Do you want fries with that?”

I’ve heard some version of this joke many times, and it’s always annoying – in part because it’s somewhat true. The joke points to the dual purpose of higher education: does it exist to preserve “the best that has been thought and said” in our culture? To teach young people how to think and about what it means to be human? To open new vistas in human understanding?

Or does it exist to prepare people for paid employment?

At one point you could have both – a bachelor’s degree in any subject signaled that its holder was diligent and intelligent, and thus suitable for white-collar work.

Unfortunately, at some point in the twentieth century, politicians noticed that university graduates enjoyed a higher status and standard of income – so they figured that if everyone went to university, then everyone could enjoy a higher status and standard of income! They sponsored a vast expansion in higher education, both in terms of the number of university campuses built, and in the number of people who were able to attend through grants and loans to help cover their tuition bills.

Universities were happy to play along. In fact, it is a major reason why university tuition fees have risen at twice the rate of inflation for the past forty years or so. Universities are not charities, they are businesses, and even though they are not-for-profit, they hate leaving money on the table. If you get a student loan, the university will make sure that it gets every penny of that loan. Someone has to pay for the new football stadium!

Alas, for the graduates themselves, the law of diminishing returns kicked in. Once bachelor’s degrees became both more common and more expensive, it meant that students could not afford to spend their undergraduate years developing a personal life philosophy and still expect that their degree would be worth something on the job market. Instead, their degree had to start paying off immediately. Thus did technical or professional majors, which prepare graduates for specific fields like business management or information technology, really start to take off. Even people who were interested in the liberal arts felt they had to major in something “practical,” out of fear for their livelihood.

Now, it should be said that universities have not completely abandoned their other, cultural purpose. They will generally require students to take a few liberal arts courses in such subjects as history, English, philosophy, or religion for the sake of polish or breadth. People who actually want to major in these subjects, however, are regularly condescended to. One guest speaker at Reinhardt told us recently, “What’s the difference between a liberal arts major and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four!”

But I have taught and kept in touch with fifteen years’ worth of history majors, and I can safely say that this view is not accurate.

For one, it does no one any good to major in a subject he hates. Better to pursue something that you’re really interested in and actually graduate, than to drop out on account of tedium.

For two, the skills acquired in the pursuit of a liberal arts degree are transferrable to a wide range of careers. Chief among these is the ability to pull information from a variety of sources, to synthesize it, and to present it in a coherent and eloquent manner. One of our history graduates, a project manager at Prosys Information Systems, says that his literacy and communication skills are “superior to almost everyone I work with,” and credits the history program for preparing him for his job. Another worked as a property analyst in Atlanta. His employers were glad to hear that he was a history major because they knew he could think through problems and analyze situations. As he says: “every day I craft proposals and analyses that need to be articulate and persuasive.”

Of course, success in the job market still depends on the exercise of certain amount of initiative. Holding an internship in a field you’d like to enter, developing contacts there, and marketing oneself through LinkedIn are all useful. Minoring in something technical can also be a good idea. And in fairness, I should point out that discretion is advised when choosing liberal arts courses, some of which, I am ashamed to admit, serve up great helpings of impenetrable, jargon-encrusted prose in the service of entirely predictable political positions.

But knowing how to think and knowing how to write will stand you in good stead wherever you end up – whether that’s in business, higher education, law enforcement, public administration, teaching, ministry, or health care, to name a few of the fields our graduates have found careers in. Long after this year’s hot programming language has been made obsolete, liberal arts graduates will still have the ability to “see around corners,” in the words of Kevin Reinhart, professor of religion at Dartmouth College. Blogger Joe Asch concurs, saying that “Over the years, whether in dealing with managers or lawyers or even architects and other professionals, I have found that folks with a liberal arts background understand larger issues which people with only technical training just can’t comprehend.”

It might take some effort to find your first job as a liberal arts major, but chances are you’ll end up performing very well in it!

Oh the Humanities

From BBC Capital:

Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life

At university, when I told people I was studying for a history degree, the response was almost always the same: “You want to be a teacher?”. No, a journalist. “Oh. But you’re not majoring in communications?”

In the days when a university education was the purview of a privileged few, perhaps there wasn’t the assumption that a degree had to be a springboard directly into a career. Those days are long gone.

Today, a degree is all but a necessity for the job market, one that more than halves your chances of being unemployed. Still, that alone is no guarantee of a job – and yet we’re paying more and more for one. In the US, room, board and tuition at a private university costs an average of $48,510 a year; in the UK, tuition fees alone are £9,250 ($12,000) per year for home students; in Singapore, four years at a private university can cost up to SGD$69,336 (US$51,000).

Learning for the sake of learning is a beautiful thing. But given those costs, it’s no wonder that most of us need our degrees to pay off in a more concrete way. Broadly, they already do: in the US, for example, a bachelor’s degree holder earns $461 more each week than someone who never attended a university.

But most of us want to maximise that investment – and that can lead to a plug-and-play type of approach to higher education. Want to be a journalist? Study journalism, we’re told. A lawyer? Pursue pre-law. Not totally sure? Go into Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) – that way, you can become an engineer or IT specialist. And no matter what you do, forget the liberal arts – non-vocational degrees that include natural and social sciences, mathematics and the humanities, such as history, philosophy and languages.

This has been echoed by statements and policies around the world. In the US, politicians from Senator Marco Rubio to former President Barack Obama have made the humanities a punch line. (Obama later apologised). In China, the government has unveiled plans to turn 42 universities into “world class” institutions of science and technology. In the UK, government focus on Stem has led to a nearly 20% drop in students taking A-levels in English and a 15% decline in the arts.

But there’s a problem with this approach. And it’s not just that we’re losing out on crucial ways to understand and improve both the world and ourselves – including enhancing personal wellbeing, sparking innovation and helping create tolerance, among other values.

It’s also that our assumptions about the market value of certain degrees – and the “worthlessness” of others – might be off. At best, that could be making some students unnecessarily stressed. At worst? Pushing people onto paths that set them up for less fulfilling lives. It also perpetuates the stereotype of liberal arts graduates, in particular, as an elite caste – something that can discourage underprivileged students, and anyone else who needs an immediate return on their university investment, from pursuing potentially rewarding disciplines.

I couldn’t agree more, and said as much in a piece that will be appearing later this summer (stay tuned).

Liberal Arts

From Fortune (from last November, but ever-relevant! Emphasis added.)

Why critics are wrong about liberal arts degrees

Time to debunk some myths.

For the last time: No, earning a degree in English, philosophy, art history, name-your-humanities-discipline will not condemn you to a lifetime of unemployment and poverty.

Actually, this is probably not the last time I will write some version of those words. It’s certainly not the first time I have written them. (See, for instance, the lede from another blog post I wrote almost exactly a year ago: “Good news for recent graduates who majored in the arts or humanities: you are not doomed to a lifetime of poverty and unemployment.”)

But I feel compelled to keep writing these words because, in the face of all evidence, the myth of the unemployed humanities major persists. It may be more prevalent than ever: Florida Senator Marco Rubio has made snarky remarks about the job market for philosophy majors a trademark of his campaign speeches for the Republican presidential nomination.

But persistent or not, the myth of the unemployed humanities major is just that: a myth, and an easily disproven one at that. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has been tracking differences in the employment of graduates from various disciplines for years, demonstrating that all graduates see spikes and troughs in their employment prospects with the changing economy. And AAC&U’s employer surveys confirm, year after year, that the skills employers value most in the new graduates they hire are not technical, job-specific skills, but written and oral communication, problem solving, and critical thinking—exactly the sort of “soft skills” humanities majors tend to excel in.

More at the link.

Liberal Arts for the Win!

From the Atlantic, as though it isn’t totally obvious:

American undergraduates are flocking to business programs, and finding plenty of entry-level opportunities. But when businesses go hunting for CEOs or managers, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad,” said Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program….

[B]usiness majors seem to be graduating with some of the technical skills they’ll need to secure jobs, but without having made the gains in writing or critical-thinking skills they’ll require to succeed over the course of their careers, or to adapt as their technical skills become outdated and the nature of the opportunities they have shifts over time.

A 2014 study of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test—administered to some 13,000 undergraduates as they entered and exited university—found that business, health, and education majors substantially underperformed students in the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and engineering. The authors then adjusted their results to account for the academic abilities of students entering these majors—and found that business and education majors still showed substantially lower gains in writing, complex reasoning, and critical thinking by the time they’d graduated.

Read the whole thing.