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What Good Is a Liberal Arts Education If You Can’t Find a Job?

Sheryl: In Kim Brooks' Salon piece, she asks about the usefulness of a liberal arts education particularly as we continue to slog through this economic downturn. The keynote speaker at a conference that I recently attended echoed the sentiments behind her question when he disparaged that aspect of American higher education which is focused on the liberal arts. The speaker indicated that China and India were way ahead of the U.S. in the number of engineers produced as a result of liberal arts majors' misguided educational focus.

The New York Times “Room for Debate” series recently included a discussion about the differing education philosophies held by Bill Gates (higher education should aim to prepare students for the job market) and Steve Jobs (higher education should aim to bring liberal arts together with technology) and what courses and majors are likely to give college students an edge in their careers in the long-term

Back in the late eighties, I was often asked what I would be able to do with a bachelor’s degree in sociology when I graduated. I remember being a little annoyed by the question—which is now being asked by people like Bill Gates. His money and outspokenness are having a major influence within the current education reform movement—I wonder how far we are going to go in discouraging liberal arts education.

Lydia: My initial response to this question: I too was asked what I expected to do with a liberal arts degree (in history) and was also annoyed. Learning how to think critically is an actual life skill people! If you don’t know how to think independently and critically you’re more susceptible to believing anything someone or something in a position of authority tells you. And yes, by that I mean you could well find yourself at a rally screaming that Obama is a socialist Nazi and not know what a socialist or a Nazi actually is or voting for a candidate that promises not to raise your taxes (or the taxes of big corporations and millionaires) as opposed to a candidate that may raise your taxes but will also try their damnedest to make sure your tax dollars go into education and work to make sure corporations and millionaires put in their fair share. Am I making a sweeping generalization? Yes! And is saying a liberal arts education is useless also a sweeping generalization? Yes!

Yes, we need scientists and engineers! But we don’t only need scientists and engineers. What we need is balance. I don’t think devaluing a liberal arts education is the way to get more students interested in science and technology. Both are valuable educations. At the moment, a sci/tech degree may seem more practical than a liberal arts degree but I must reiterate that that does not mean it is of more value or importance.

After reading Kim Brooks’ piece: From what I remember of my college days, back in the 90s, we had a career center that worked pretty hard to drive home the idea that we would not be in college forever. In conjunction with library/information services they offered tutorials in using different kinds of software. They also had binders (this was the 90s, I’m sure everything is digital now) filled with internships and jobs and contact info of alums working in various fields that were willing to talk to and or mentor current students. Maybe this is a rarity in liberal arts schools.

My parents did ask what I wanted to “do” but never in a “you must know what you're going to do with your life right now!” kind of way. They did teach me some practical things like how to balance a check book and some computer basics. I guess my point is that the kind of education that is going to prepare you for the workforce and life doesn’t only come from those four or more years spent in college. Come to think of it, I learned how to type, use a computer, and answer a phone, before I graduated from high school and those are pretty much the only skills you need for an entry level position.

Only living can teach you how to live and make your way in the world. A high-powered career is not the essential element of a successful life and in most cases, success is relative. I’ve rambled on long enough and I’m not sure if I’m getting my point across but I find the questioning of learning and broadening of horizons abhorrent.

Lucinda: There is something terribly ironic about Kim Brooks’ “Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree?” and she knows it. She wouldn’t have the skill to think and write effectively about this issue had she not gotten that liberal arts degree back in 2000. And she sure wouldn’t have been paid by Salon to tell us about it had it not been for her liberal arts education. Perhaps I’m overstating things a bit, but not much. Kim Brooks clearly loved getting a liberal arts education, which is why she ends her piece by waxing nostalgic about college:

“Right now, they’re in those four extraordinary, exceptional years where ideas matter; and there’s not a thing I’d do to change that.”

Balancing the idealism of a liberal arts education and the pragmatism of finding a viable career path can be challenging, but it’s especially challenging during a recession when there are too few jobs for those dewy-eyed students with their liberal arts degrees. Should liberal arts majors be pushed to think a bit more about careers? Yes. But, like Kim Brooks, I wouldn’t trade the experience of fumbling around, jumping from job to job, and figuring out what to do with myself for anything. That was my professional education, and that’s OK by me.

Nichole: Well, having gone the furthest down the garden path of a liberal arts education into the weeds of a Ph.D. in American Studies, the most liberal perhaps of all graduate programs, and then teaching, I can say that more students would benefit from a liberal arts education than not. I say this even having decided after teaching for a bit to go to law school and try my hand at working in the “real world,” a dismissive and parochial term if ever there was one.

I’m pretty convinced that people are who they are without needing to find themselves in college. Rather, the value of college, at least for me, was strengthening my confidence in my abilities as a thinker, someone capable of puzzling out problems, organizing projects, and seeing them through to completion. Part of what a liberal arts education provides is the permission to be who you imagine yourself to be in your most secret dreams. The problem is that other people, even sometimes the student herself, are unable to be as imaginative. 

And this is why career counselors are always telling students they can do anything they want, especially if they are “entrepreneurial.” The problem is not with the liberal arts education, it’s with a society that, even though it claims to provide opportunities to achieve the “American Dream,” the dream is limited to a very few who fit into a particular model of success. We define success by what has resulted in success, and only measure someone as a success if they fit into a narrow box of achievement.

Students, whether in the liberal arts, the sciences, law, or business, need to write more. They need to practice revising and editing their work, to understand how to communicate in a written form. I’ve taught students who are phenomenal wordsmiths and others who should be in remedial classes. I’ve read the work of lawyers whose job it is to fashion winning arguments through the persuasiveness of their writing and been both exhilarated by it and flabbergasted that they’ve continued to get clients. 

I like to learn about things. My degrees give me some authority to say, “I know things and can do things,” my education taught me that every day is an opportunity to learn something new, to build on my experiences, and to nurture the person I am.

Sheryl: If a student selects a career-oriented major, that is great. If a student chooses a liberal arts major, that is equally as great. I thought the undergraduate years were supposed to be a time to explore your interests—a time when students can explore, learn, and grow.

I see the effort to tie higher education to filling jobs as part of a trend which says that in order for a program or policy to be deemed worthwhile it must have a measurable result. For higher education reformers like Bill Gates, the measurable result is closely linked to graduates' ability to fill the available jobs. As you mentioned Lydia, there is also evidence of another trend—a focus on the short-term to the detriment of possible long-term interests. As Edwin W. Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers, points out in the article I cited earlier:

…The advantage possessed by career-oriented majors may be short-lived. Once in a career path, the more general skills of communication, organization and judgment become highly valued. As a result, liberal arts graduates frequently catch or surpass graduates with career-oriented majors in both job quality and compensation.”

In the end, this is a debate about the value of learning for learning’s sake. Lucinda, I agree that there needs to be some additional attention given to preparing liberal arts graduates for the challenges they may face in finding a career in a job market which may not rush to open its doors to them. I think a focus on the  “entrepreneurial” aspect that Nichole mentioned would be very useful. I am certain that it would have been helpful to me as an undergraduate. 

As someone who went back to graduate school after many years because I simply wanted to be able to study something that I was interested in, I have a graduate degree that I knew would be unlikely to lead to a dream career. But as Nichole said, I have further developed my ability to communicate effectively through writing, plan and complete long-term projects, think critically, and problem-solve—skills that serve me well in all aspects of my life. 

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