We’ve read that the majority of liberal arts degree majors coming out of college will be well suited for the burgeoning barista segment of the service industry in the coming years. We’ve read that trade schools are far better uses of your educational dollars than a liberal arts BA from a 4 year school. And we’ve been bombarded with exhortations that only science and math (I’m sure engineering fits in there somewhere) are the only worthy academic pursuits. Hell, even accounting has been somehow given a bad name.
I have a different point of view than much of what’s been described in the popular press concerning the value of a liberal arts degree. To be clear, I’m a liberal arts degree holder – I got a BA in East Asian Studies in 1983, thinking I was on my way into the foreign service, when I took a hard right hand turn and chose business school instead. Understand that business schools in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s wanted liberal arts majors, largely for the same reason I’m going to suggest here. It’s this:
Liberal arts majors are taught to dig deep and understand what’s under the surface.
Sure, lots of degrees teach thinking. It’s just that your run of the mill liberal arts student has to do more than hold a thought or think through a problem. They have to analyze. They have to research. They have to develop competing points of view, evaluate them all, come to conclusions and then defend them to PhD’s (professors) and peers. And they have to be able to communicate, because their medium is words, from Jacobean Tragedies to the Meiji Restoration to the Munduruku tribe of the Amazon. As for work ethic, my East Asian 400 series courses at Washington & Lee University (courtesy of Dr. Roger Jeans, perhaps the toughest and best professor of any subject I’ve ever taken) were among the most rigorous of my academic career – which included an MBA from Wharton.
What does your company do? Does it require people to understand nuance, gather large amounts of data – both qualitative and quantitative – and synthesize it? Do you have customers who have opinions, stated and unstated? Does your company use words and images to persuade and enlist support? Your liberal arts majors do this pretty well – often a damn sight better than their more quantitatively oriented peers. Actually, they are always better at this. But I’m just showing my bias here.
My BA isn’t why people hire me anymore, honestly, as it’s pretty far back in my past. But before you kick dirt on the liberal arts degree, do some research beyond the surface area. Understand the nuance, the context, the qualitative and quantitative nature of the discussion first.
Chances are that people who find the degree un-hirable are referring more to individuals than areas of expertise.
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Great post! When I first graduated with my BA in Spanish, I struggled to find a job. Unlike more vocational BS tracks, one doesn’t graduate with a specific job skill set in hand in the same way that chemist or other science based degree does. In time, I found that my degree was very much worth the time, energy and money for many of the reasons described in this post! Oh, and speaking Spanish in today’s world doesn’t hurt either.
I have a BA in Communication and French, and an MBA. It’s my BA that keeps me employed not my MBA. People are more interested in my ability to write, speak, research, synthesize information, relate to others and like what you said appositely Stephen, to dig deep and understand what lies beyond the surface. In the 11 years since I received my MBA, no one has asked me to do financial ratios or apply the Lagrangian function. But people have always been impressed with the way I write, speak, present myself, connect ideas etc. And I’m totally with Burl – it doesn’t hurt to speak French today’s world! 🙂
Very interesting. I totally agree. Liberal Arts Majors have a lot to offer I have very similar thoughts on the arts and the future or work : http://www.smartercomputingblog.com/2011/12/12/help-wanted-artists-for-technology/
True enough, Haliza. Thanks!
Burl, it really depends on the person, doesn’t it? The employer hires the person, not the degree.
I love this! I had thought of a similar post but did not get around to it. The gist of it was the liberal arts majors are ruling the Internet.
Scratch below the surface of most blog/businesses and you’ll find a liberal arts major.
I myself hold a dual major in French and West European Studies. A diploma that does indeed invite me to keep digging deeper.
I love this – thanks for this perspective!