There’s quite a debate happening right now, if you are listening, about the value, or lack thereof, of a liberal arts education. The main forum in this debate, as far as the things I read, is in the Wall Street Journal. Just this week Talent Zoo Published an articleabout the merits of a liberal arts education based on recently published pay figures. I think that the debate was kicked off in earnest by the Occupy Wall Street crowd, many of whom lamented the money spent at expensive liberal arts schools and the general lack of jobs in the US Job market. The WSJ has taken this story and run with it, especially in light of the government’s de-facto take over of the college loan industry, and some of the inane pieces of that encroachment — loan forgiveness after 20 years, and possibly even 10 depending on career choice. The issue is certainly complex, and I definitely feel for recent grads coming into this market — it is still pretty ugly — but I don’t completely agree with the WSJ — readers & contributors — position that the liberal arts education is dead and a waste of time and that we would all be better off to be math, engineering and CS majors.
Know that I’m coming to this debate from my background as a liberal arts guy: BA in Philosophy, MA in Art History, Certificate of Museum Studies (I’d also argue that my high school education was classically liberal arts)… yet I’m now running a business, that is doing just fine, working for a variety of clients in a number of industries. I will also admit that some liberal arts majors have more pragmatic post-college trajectories than others — Biology & Chemistry, say versus Philosophy and Music, but everybody who went to my undergrad is a liberal arts degree holder. We all have a basis in the humanities, and all have read some of the classics, and contemplated things with no practical purpose other than it’s part of being educated. To me this is important. Once upon a time people went to school to become educated, and things sorted themselves out afterwards. I know. I know: “That’s not how the world is anymore,” some would say. “You can’t compete in this market place without a technical degree,” others would say. Yet a good, old fashioned, liberal arts education, based on the premise of providing the student with a broad base of knowledge, that hones critical thinking and communication skills should allow one to make ones’ way in the world very nicely. At the very least, it should also provide enough of a base to make the liberal arts major a decent cocktail party conversationalist.
As the author of the Talent Zoo article says success in the modern work place depends on:
three big squishy traits: adaptability, exploration competency, and entrepreneurialism. In short, the driving contribution of liberal arts is a well-developed ability to learn and think, both fast and successfully.
I agree with this quote (except for maybe the part about entrepreneurialism — this is not necessarily learned in any school, it’s more a character trait that is there or not, but that can be developed). Part of any good liberal arts education involves exploration and adaptation. I do not come to my current line of work naturally — its seeds were planted while getting my MA, contemplating a much different path than the one I’m currently on, and hanging out with designers in the computer lab in the early days of the contemporary web. Yet, here I am, after a long process of learning, adaption and adjustment. Now, I’ve also got a healthy dose of confidence, a competitive nature, and a never-ending desire and ability to hustle, and grind — more things that can’t be taught, but coupled with a great education lead to some interesting opportunities. I agree that America needs engineers and scientists, and that maybe anticipated-college-major should have some bearing on college loan rates. However, I’m not ready to concede the future to the purely technical and pragmatically educated. There are still places in the modern, interconnected, 24-7, world economy for Liberal Arts Guys & Gals to utilize their broad based educations and their ability to analyze, adapt and change to be competitive, to make a difference and succeed.