As long as I have been alive (more than four decades), the knock on liberal arts majors has been in force. I heard it as a student. I hear it as a professor and academic administrator. “It’s great that you love history (or English or philosophy), but what are you going to DO with that?” The answer, based on the results of a study published in the Wall Street Journal, may surprise you. It turns that out that while students who major in a wide variety of professional fields out-earn their liberal arts peers at the outset, the liberal arts majors tend to pull ahead in later years.
How can this be? The liberal arts major doesn’t learn a market-driven skill such as nursing or business management. On what basis would they earn more money at any point in their careers? There are a variety of answers available, but I would like to focus on one in particular. By doing so, I think I can also make a case, not only for liberal arts majors, but also for strengthening (rather than cutting or eliminating) the liberal arts core.
College is a time of preparation. Thanks to the high cost of tuition, we are looking for a highly predictable runway to successful and well-compensated employment. It is easier to envision that sort of dynamic playing out when your student is a nursing or business major than it is when the young person wants to major in English. The problem with this view is that it gives too much credit to the professional fields and not enough to the liberal arts.
If you really think about learning, there are some master disciplines which unlock all the others. They are philosophy, history, mathematics, language (reading/writing), and science (mainly mastery of the scientific method). These disciplines form the core of learning and comprise the engine of its expression. The student who gains proficiency in these areas will maintain, for virtually the rest of his/her life, the capacity to learn new things and to organize those new things within the context of the older things. The learning that takes place in these areas does not really expire. It does not become dated. It is a fund that maintains its value. The same is not necessarily true of knowledge gained in professional programs.
The great management theorist Peter Drucker addressed the matter insightfully in his 1957 book Landmarks of Tomorrow (emphasis mine):
Whatever does not add to the capacity for sustained growth of personality or contribution is impractical – and may indeed be deleterious. That this or that subject adds to a man’s ability to get a job, or to do well on his first job, is not irrelevant. But as a measure of the effectiveness of a long-term advanced investment it may be the most impractical yardstick, may indeed cost heavily in terms of the really practical results. The practical test of education in educated society is whether it prepares for the demands of the world fifteen years after graduation. Since we live in an age of innovation, a practical education must prepare a man for work that does not yet exist and cannot yet be clearly defined. To be able to do this a man must have learned to learn. He must be conscious of how much there is still to learn. He must acquire basic tools of analysis, of expression, of understanding. Above all he must have the desire for self-development.
The person who has mastered a particular market-driven skill of today is in a good position to profit in the short term, but given that we live in a highly dynamic society, the better long term investment is an education that equips the person to learn for the rest of his life. The liberal arts, if taught well and approached with desire by the student, have the ability to unlock almost any subject the student wishes to learn for years to come. If you understand how to think, how to draw lessons from past experience, how to write and speak, how to calculate, and how to put information through the kinds of tests which yield knowledge, then you have the tools you need.
Drucker was right about the kind of education people require in order to thrive. But if we are to put the liberal arts to work and get the most out of them that we can, we have to address our cultural expectations. All the players in the higher education world – students, parents, colleges, governments – need to give proper priority to the traditional arts and sciences as the keys to further learning. In other words, we have to throw out the self-defeating view that those courses are just hurdles students must jump because they have in the past. They are not hurdles. The traditional fields are fulcrums, levers, and pulleys that magnify the strength of subsequent learning. Institutions should stop throwing together core curricula on the basis of turf battles, faculty preference, and expedience and instead should come up with principled plans for liberal arts cores that will make them what they should be. Various professional majors should stop demanding more and more hours at the expense of liberal arts core curricula. Without a solid foundation at the bottom, the education at the top will be poured into a sieve. At a minimum, it will not be as effective as it otherwise would have been.
Finally, to return to the issue of liberal arts majors where we began, it is time we stopped treating them as though they were merely aesthetic in value. The student who has taken the time to read and understand Shakespeare’s plays and the novels of Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoevsky as part of an English literature major is no one to be taken lightly or dismissed as some kind of throwback relic. She is a person who is capable of sustaining attention and learning what she needs to as her life and career develop.
Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is dean of instruction at Union University and the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student’s Guide. For the record, he majored in economics at Florida State University nearly a quarter century ago because he thought it sounded career-worthy. He got lucky. It was great.