The Value of a Liberal Arts Degree

The New York Times recently ran a story about a shift in attitudes regarding the purpose of a college education. Quoting a survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, they note:

In 1971, 37 percent responded that it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially,” while 73 percent said the same about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2009, the values were nearly reversed: 78 percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy.

I’ll admit that I was one of those in college in 1971, and “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was my #1 interest at the time. So I have something of a bias in this matter.

I’ve also seen something of the current career orientation in person; a couple years ago I was on an alumni panel that addressed current students at my alma mater regarding what one could do with a political science degree. I was struck at the time by the way many students were focused on their career choice. They seemed to approach it with the sense that this was an extremely important question for which there were right and wrong answers, and making a wrong choice might irreparably harm their future.

This was not the way I’d felt when I was in college, and I was not alone. My class graduated in the mid-1970s, when the economy was in recession and jobs were scarce. After we graduated many of us took whatever jobs we could; my first job after college was as a photographer for Olan Mills for a year and a half. But far from damaging me, that job gave me an education in life in the real world as opposed to that of academia. It also had some lighter moments, much like this.

I’d like to say I shared my worldly experience and wisdom while on that panel, but I had a spirit of the stairs moment and didn’t have an insight until the session was over and I was on my way to my car. If I had it to do over, I would have pointed out to the attendees that in my work I generally work on a PC, design and maintain web sites, design and maintain databases, and communicate with others via email. Pretty much none of those things existed when I graduated from college; if I’d focused on learning whatever it was that preceded that technology, I would have been faced with having to unlearn it and learn the new stuff when it came along.

My college likes to say that a liberal arts degree teaches you how to think and learn. It’s not focused on getting you your first job; it’s focused on enabling you to succeed in life. This is a point that was made by the New York Times:

…Dr. Neuhauser finds the careerism troubling. “I think people change a great deal between 18 and 22,” he says. “The intimate environment small liberal arts colleges provide is a great place to grow up. But there’s no question that smacks of some measure of elitism now.”

There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”

As in so many other parts of life, people get spooked by uncertainty when looking forward to their careers. Many react by seeking out a solid, career-oriented major that will get them their first job. But the problem with such an education is that it doesn’t help you much after you get that job and the world starts changing. Then you realize that uncertainty has never gone away, but you still aren’t equiped to deal with it.

Looking back from the twilight years of my regular career life, I’m very grateful for my liberal arts education. Not only have I found it useful in my job; it has helped me develop interests (like this blog) that I can continue to pursue when I retire.

After the formal Q&A part of our panel discussion about political science and careers, a young woman came up to me with a question. She was intrigued by the Obama for President campaign and was thinking about doing some volunteer work for it. She seemed to be asking me if that would be ok career-wise. I found the question surprising, as well as a bit ironic. The surprise was that the question was asked; back in my day we just volunteered for such work, without thinking about its career ramifications. The irony was that I had volunteered for the Carter-Mondale campaign in 1976 just because I wanted them to win, but that had led to my making contacts that led to my first job with New York State.

My recommendation to her, as well as to any other college students who might come across this post? Follow your passion and what brings the best out in you, and the future will tend to work things out for the best. You may not become rich, but then there are lots of unhappy rich people around. Following what truly interests you is the best way to find personal fulfillment.

******** POSTSCRIPT ********
Steve Jobs made a similar point in his Stanford commencement speech.

******** POSTSCRIPT  2 ********
The New York Times recently ran another article, this one about the value of liberal arts training in business school. They note:

…even before the financial upheaval last year, business executives operating in a fast-changing, global market were beginning to realize the value of managers who could think more nimbly across multiple frameworks, cultures and disciplines. The financial crisis underscored those concerns — at business schools and in the business world itself.

As a result, a number of prominent business schools have re-evaluated and, in some cases, redesigned their M.B.A. programs in the last few years. And while few talk explicitly about taking a liberal arts approach to business, many of the changes are moving business schools into territory more traditionally associated with the liberal arts: multidisciplinary approaches, an understanding of global and historical context and perspectives, a greater focus on leadership and social responsibility and, yes, learning how to think critically.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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