Is The Liberal Arts Degree Still Valuable?

The recent Salon.com article “Is It Time to Kill the Liberal Arts Degree?” sparked an interesting discussion on my personal Facebook page. I argued that employers want graduates who can write well, think critically, and solve problems–all things a liberal arts degree prepares one to do. Others agreed but pointed out that it’s not necessarily an either/or proposition when it comes to college students learning about business, science, or the liberal arts–all are valuable. There were also comments about the insularity of those in the liberal arts, who often see the study of literature, art, or history as the most important end result without considering how to connect it to larger issues outside of academia.

The best rationale for a liberal arts education that I’ve read was written by Bill Cronon, a University of Wisconsin history professor who was harassed with FOIA requests by Republicans earlier this year. (For a different view about those requests, see Jack Shafer’s piece on Salon.com.) Cronon’s list of what constitutes a liberally educated individual is worth the read.

Does that mean that everyone should receive, or is capable of pursuing, a liberal arts education? Does that mean that the liberal arts can solve all of the world’s many ills? Of course not. I would argue, though, that individuals who pursue a liberal arts education are better prepared to face life’s challenges and to offer solutions to problems that they and others face. The problem isn’t the liberal arts–it’s the failure of academics to make the connection between the theoretical and the practical and the systemic failure of universities and colleges to acknowledge the value that the liberal arts bring. Despite naysayers who deride university attendance as “primarily a four year vacation” and who want to sacrifice the liberal arts for “Skill-based education,” there is a large market for employees who possess the critical thinking, clear writing, and problem-solving taught in the liberal arts. Those of us in the liberal arts would do well to seize upon its existence, both for our students’ sake and our own.

Update (6-22-11): This article on Chronicle.com is an interesting read as well. I like this part of the author’s argument: “Smart, well-educated people do well in this world more often than not, and colleges are in the business of making people smart and well-educated.” Make sure you read the comments section as well.
Update (6-23-11): Someone brought this New Republic article to my attention. In sum, it argues that the hand-wringing about college degrees, especially in the liberal arts, not paying off has been going on for decades.

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4 Replies to “Is The Liberal Arts Degree Still Valuable?”

  1. As a history graduate student who is just beginning to teach undergrads, I have developed a passion for explaining the importance of studying history to young people who are understandably very afraid to enter this depressed market.
    There is a lot of blame going around right now about American job losses, and I think most of it is a smoke screen. As a voting polity, we should spend a little more time focusing on where the money is going, who is profiting, and why fewer people are getting wealthier and many more are getting poorer.
    In the classroom, I ask my students to think about why getting educated is critical in a democratic republic. I ask them to think about whether Americans are getting more educated, or less educated, and who benefits if Americans are less educated.
    I am frightened by the amount of debt some of these students accept in order to pay for their education. Other students try to rush through college and just “get their degree” while juggling family responsibilities and full time jobs.
    Therefore, one of my principal goals is to get “buy in” for working harder in my classes than they might have expected or wanted, towards developing writing, speaking, and critical thinking skills. I am more successful in some classes than others, but, that’s my job, so I keep at it.
    At the end of the semester, I offer each student a bookmark with the following two quotations on either side.

    “To educate a man is to unfit him to be a slave.” Frederick Douglass

    “What do we need to know? Do we not, as self-conscious self-defining human beings, need a knowledge of our own history, our much politicized minds and bodies, an awareness of the creative work of our fore-bearers, an inclusive recognition of the skills and crafts and techniques and powers exercised by influential people in different times and cultures, a knowledge of rebellions and organized movements against oppression and how they have been routed or diminished. Without knowing our histories, we live and have lived without context, vulnerable to the projections and fantasies of those in power over us, their prescriptions for us, estranged from our own experience because our education has negated it. I would suggest that neither environment nor biology, but ignorance of ourselves, is the key to our powerlessness.”
    –paraphrasing Adrienne Rich, from “What does a woman need to know?”

    Then, I let them go, and begin all over again next semester.
    I suppose it helps to be passionate about the field of history in order to teach it every year. But, I can’t think of many things that I would rather be doing.
    Frederick Douglass, I remind my students, did not want an education to get a job. He had plenty of job offers. He wanted an education to be able to think independently.
    Some of them actually seem to get it.

  2. “employees who possess the critical thinking, clear writing, and problem-solving taught in the liberal arts”

    Unfortunately, I know more than a few liberal arts grads who posses none of those.

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