Liberal arts education has taken some heat recently. Employers have complained that graduates aren’t prepared for jobs and degree holders, policy makers, and economic experts lament that graduates won’t be able to pay back the loans they’ve taken out to pay for these degrees. History, art history, sociology, classics, and philosophy undergraduate degrees have long been a target of the often-mocking question, “What are you going to do with that?”
The remark is meant to point out that a liberal arts degree is not practical for employability. I disagree. In today’s dynamic, fast-changing, creative economy, the skillset that a liberal arts education sculpts in students empowers them with the tools to be resourceful, practical, and adaptable in addressing challenges in many professions.
A Liberal Arts Education Prepares You for Anything
True, many liberal arts graduates like me also joke that we don’t use our degrees, but that is disingenuous. The topics themselves are just a medium for developing a skillset that will serve us well in all areas of our lives for years to come. Sifting through volumes of information, developing opinions, identifying sources and information to defend those views, and meeting deadlines are all part of a rigorous liberal arts education.
The bigger theme to these components is that a liberal arts education is not formulaic. As in life, right and wrong are not always clear-cut. Instead, accomplishing life goals comes down to the individual. The individual is tasked with navigating through the information available and developing an end product. When a student encounters information that undermines her original view, it’s up to her to reverse course or adapt accordingly.
This skillset is timeless and empowering. Liberal arts education dates back to the ancient Greek and Roman times when the curriculum—originally grammar, rhetoric, and logic—was considered fundamental for a free person. Its purpose, as it is today, is “to develop well-rounded individuals with general knowledge of a wide range of subjects and with mastery of a range of transferable skills.” In today’s rapidly changing, innovative economy, the value of such a personally empowering education should not need defending.
In an essay for Intercollegiate Reviewscu, Russell Kirk argues that a liberal arts education is not intended to prepare students for jobs. He explains its purpose is to develop the individual in mind and moral character. He emphasizes that cultivating these areas sets an individual free from the material aims of the state. The fruits of a liberal arts education also set individuals free materially by preparing them for life rather than specific jobs, which are vulnerable to societal changes and innovation. This is a topic we’ve heard a lot about lately: jobs that people have held for decades, and have been specifically trained to do, getting phased out by innovation.
Employers Want Broad Skills, Not Narrow Skills
Interestingly, it’s not the lack of hard skills troubling employers, but soft skills. A survey by Payscale.com cites specifics about why they complain so many recent graduates are underprepared to enter the workforce. According to the managers surveyed, new hires are “lacking in critical thinking and problem-solving skills (60 percent) and attention to detail (56 percent) as well as writing proficiency (44 percent) and public speaking (39 percent).” These are exactly the dynamic, transferable skills that a liberal arts education is supposed to develop.
Nevertheless, elected officials and bureaucrats seem deaf to lamentations of employers and continue to drive the rhetoric, as well as various programs, pushing for more people to enter trade schools or STEM fields. Unfortunately, the trend of polarization, which has come to define everything from politics to where people choose to shop, has crept into education. Technical, hard skills, and knowledge of the sciences are great, but instead of picking one field or approach over another other—e.g., science or humanities; hard or soft skills—people should be encouraged develop themselves “on both sides of the aisle,” so to speak.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Chemistry professor Loretta Jackson-Hayes points out that “[o]ur culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs.” She goes on to explain how successful, innovative people in today’s economy draw on knowledge from various fields, underscoring the value the arts and liberal arts add to the sciences.
What Kids Are Getting Nowadays Isn’t the Real Liberal Arts
The reality is, liberal arts degrees are not failing graduates and employers. Our institutions of higher education are failing to deliver on their promise to provide a true liberal arts education.
Instead of facilitating forums for intellectual debate and supporting young adults to develop critical thinking skills, recent examples coming out of U.S. universities and colleges reveal that classrooms and campuses look more like indoctrination centers for zealous professors. Free speech zones, violence to silence conservative speakers, courses specifically to promote political agendas and candidates— and discredit others—and professors misusing their positions of authority to voice their political opinions as undebatable truths have netted media attention, particularly over the last election cycle.
Furthermore, recent efforts to give voice to students brave enough to speak out reveal the disheartening reality that, today, campuses of higher education have taken 180-degree turns from empowering free individuals with knowledge and skills to engage in civil society. Fox News’ Jesse Watters visited Cornell University, for example, and students admitted they dare not oppose professors’ left-leaning views if they want to get good grades. This doesn’t sound like the path to cultivating a free citizenry.
Unfortunately, students across college campuses voice similar sentiments. In a recent New York Times article profiling Republican students at the University of California at Berkeley, one student described getting punched in the face for being a Republican. While the anecdotal stories are compelling enough, U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Michael Yaki is on record arguing in favor of free speech restrictions because college students are not “developed” enough for free speech.
The comment, if true, would mean that 18- to 22-year-olds are not developed enough to pursue liberal art degrees. Odd, then, that the federal government has made student loan money so readily available to this group that isn’t “developed” enough to pursue a higher education.
Our economy has changed from the classical times, and it makes sense that approaches to education should adapt as well. But tweaks must be well-thought-out. Ditching the liberal arts is clearly a losing strategy. The Renaissance man and woman have proven to be timeless. The liberal arts degree is not irrelevant or outdated, just hard to find.