Liberal arts and jobs: It is not an either/or situation

I’d like to put my position up front: there is NO schism between liberal arts education and jobs. None. So, when you hear the President of the United States, many governors, policy wonks, talking heads and Peter Thiel say that Liberal Arts are not a good career investment (although to be fair, Thiel argues against college entirely, not just Liberal Arts), they are misguided.

There is an irony in most of these statements, because many of those making them actually *have* Liberal Arts degrees. But, I’d like to argue that there’s more to it than irony and short-sightedness. It may not be explicit, but it is present.

I think there’s classism involved.

Remember our context — we live in a time where college degrees are still quite rare (the Census Bureau says we crossed over the 30% mark only in the past few years). But, even that low-ish number is still greatly expanded over even 20 years ago. And if you’ve studied your Pierre Bourdieu, you know the theory of education being a place that passes on social capital.

While I agree that college tuition costs are increasing rapidly and current costs for some institutions are too high, it seems to me that at least some of the argument we are hearing for “practical majors” is rooted in the idea that perhaps only the wealthy should be able to study humanities, arts and culture. Are these not things for the well-to-do? Shouldn’t the working class be studying something that just simply puts them to work?

No, of course not. And that’s why the irony of so many of these folks arguing for more “jobs ROI” from our colleges and universities, while simultaneously wielding power AND holding a Liberal Arts education, seems so thick.

To my opening point, there is no schism between Liberal Arts education and obtaining a first job or a successful professional life. I’m paraphrasing John Dewey (perhaps poorly) when I say it, but I do believe that an occupation is not the purpose of higher education, but it is a logical outcome. As a career center director, I know first hand that those with Liberal Arts degrees can have both short-term and long-term career success, while also studying arts, culture and humanities. I see it all the time (and the AAUC noted in a recent study that Liberal Arts majors actually make more than those from professional programs during their peak earning years).

We do not need to spend more time steering students into so-called “practical majors.” Students need to pursue academic areas that intrigue them and in which they can do good, hard academic work. We do need to spend more time helping students find contexts to which they can apply their Liberal Arts skills.

Yes, we know that the philosophy major is not going to find an organization to pay him or her to sit around and just think deeply. But, that’s a straw man argument. There are plenty of organizations who would like a student who can critically analyze situations; who can see varying perspectives; and who can write competently. Problem solved, philosophy student. Let’s take those highly desired skills and find a good fit for you!

Our challenge is to have our students tackle these post-college questions earlier. We need to make this a core expectation of the college experience from semester one. Students should not skip over the very important steps of academic exploration. However, they need to undertake this exploration in parallel with examination of potential industries and functional areas of interest. When done together, students have the agency to set a positive academic AND career trajectory for themselves.

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  1. @chrisconzen

     /  May 26, 2014

    I do think, though, there is a differentiation to make clear that you do touch on. There’s the student pursuing the liberal arts degree with a purpose, and then there’s the student pursuing the liberal arts degree because of the lack of purpose. The criticism comes because of the latter – the students who go to college because it’s the logical next step, but haven’t given entirely much thought to the end goal. Working at a community college, I obviously see EVERY type of student, and one cohort always includes the student who has some credits, or even a degree, and NOW has discovered what they actually want to pursue as a career. While I don’t ever believe an education is a waste, I know that some of them lament the money spent pursuing a degree in the absence of a clear career direction. It is ironic that we often position the community college as being in more of the “job training” game, but the majority of our students actually do graduate with a liberal arts general studies degree. I will counter that I do think that an occupation is the purpose of SOME higher education, and it is the sole desired purpose of some who are pursuing it.

    • garyalanmiller

       /  May 26, 2014

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. Certainly you’re right that occupation is a common (the most common, actually) stated reason for pursuing higher ed. But, I just don’t see a schism there between that narrow view and the broader intent.

      Additionally, although I don’t think you and I are really disagreeing in the end, I don’t think someone needs to have worked the purpose stuff out ahead of time — I just think they need to undertake serious exploration once they arrive. In fact, I don’t know that most students have a broad enough exposure *to* make those decisions earlier.

      They can establish that purpose for themselves. But, we (and they) just need to do a better job of helping that happen, and happen earlier.

  2. I definitely think this is an important discussion to have. You’re absolutely right that the current discussion wreaks of classism.

    *But* I do believe in the power of trades and 2 year degrees that don’t focus on a Liberal Arts curriculum. It’s the gray area where idealism and practicality collide. Working in the Community College system, I serve some students who do not have the desire to pursue Liberal Arts education. Potential and ability, probably, but desire and persistence make a bigger difference in student success than potential and ability. Saying that Liberal Arts is for everyone doesn’t ring true– not everyone *wants* a Liberal Arts degree. However, to say that it’s not for everyone implies that we should keep students out. We should never keep students out! But, having other solid, quality, options is not a bad thing. Many of my students are earning degrees that will lead them into trades where they will have long, fulfilling, successful, and lucrative careers (likely making more money than I will). The most important thing is to provide all students with access to information and clear options that will allow them to make informed decisions.

    As long as the elite who are pushing trades are also okay with their sons and daughters pursuing alternative tracks, then it’s a good discussion to have. Otherwise, you’re right, it’s just an agenda designed to distract and keep the masses out of the ivory tower.

  3. garyalanmiller

     /  May 27, 2014

    Lisa, you make a good point. My core assumption is that Liberal Arts is a good choice and serves both the individual and our society well. I do think everyone *can* benefit from Liberal Arts education. But, you are spot on that students who have no interest in pursuing university-level work have completely legitimate trade choices available to them.

    I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to say that all students must study Liberal Arts. I don’t mean for the pendulum to swing that far. I simply mean that students who are pursuing university level education should not be made to be afraid of Liberal Arts for so-called lack of practicality.

    That said, I do have some concerns that part of *why* some students opt out of Liberal Arts (both within the university and outside — for those pursuing trade training, etc.) is the messages they hear and myths they believe about the usefulness of said major. Certainly community colleges provide incredibly valuable access to our society, and it’s not an all-or-nothing situation with the Liberal Arts there, either.

    I’m completely in favor of fully-informed options on the table.


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