Liberal Arts Degrees

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

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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 income level – so they figured that if everyone went to university, then everyone could enjoy a higher status and income level! 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, plus what it would have charged in the first place. Someone has to pay for the president’s new office suite!

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!