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.