How relevant is that liberal arts degree in the workplace?

In a recent New York Times article (and I kind of want to punch myself for just typing that), Kate Zernike discusses degree selection and the adjustment colleges and universities are making due to shifts in the social and economic environment. Some schools are doing away with liberal arts degrees like English and philosophy because of a lack of connection between the subject matter and the future profession. It's not really that the universities don't see the connection (though their arguments aren't particularly compelling: you need to know how to write well in the professional world), it's that enrollments are down which makes me think that the students and their families don't see the connection.

When I selected a major, I was "strongly encouraged" to select business. Ah, that precarious time in my life when I wasn't confident enough to fight the power and study something that inspired me. Ah well, the business degree has come in handy. Or has it?

I kind of envied those more educated in the humanities; they are so much better at interesting conversation. My grasp of the classics is seriously lacking. Canterbury Tales? I have no idea. I also hate opera and the symphony for anyone keeping score on how unsophisticated I am. All those things people are supposed to pretend they like? I can't muster the energy. But books? Ooooh, how I love books.

I hear discussion about the balance of the liberal arts and the more "practical" elements of the curriculum. And those are both important. But I think I learned the most at college outside of the classroom. And I am not talking about beer bongs and fraternity parties. There's a social element that I also think is very important, which is also achieved through a liberal arts education. I'm not defending the practicality of that kind of education just based on the social aspects of college life. Just saying it needs to be discussed.

I know that colleges and universities are businesses and their product is the new graduate. And so maybe you (or they) measure the quality of the product based on the first job out of school. But for the person (and their parents or other influencers) entering school; paying for school, there is a potential lifetime of impact that education is going to have on the individual. Colleges make decisions around getting their product out the door, consumers make their decisions taking into account a much longer product life. See the disparity?

People need to think about how the university and the degree are viewed by employers throughout the life of the individual; specifically in the argument about whether or not a liberal arts education is relevant anymore. First job out of school? Your degree can be really important, especially if you aren't using personal connections to get it (and honey, if you've got them, use them). As time passes, the balance of focus shifts away from the education and toward experience. At some point in your career, is it possible that people won't give a rip about whether you went to college at all? Yeah, totally. And frequently where I work. I guess what I am saying is that the discussion I see isn't really about whether or not a more "practical" degree choice is going to impact you throughout your career, but the part it plays in preparing you for your first job. Because all that foundational good learnin' that helps you through life? Well much of that can be achieved through a course of study focused on the humanities. I mean, did anyone take any philosophy classes? That stuff is hard! I took an art class once that almost made me cry (how am I supposed to know what the artist was feeling when he painted that hub cap? A hubcap!).

I don't really have any agenda in defending the liberal arts education, now that I have totally written about how it mostly only matters in your first job out of college. My degree is in business. And I am not sure if it's just the romantic notion of reading and writing, art, etcetera that really appeals to me. But let me throw 2 more things at you:

Waldorf schools (AKA Steiner Schools). I saw part of a documentary about different types of education in some parts of Europe relative to their more western alternatives. You know, "we" (westerners)  start kids out young learning the alphabet and numbers. In the Waldorf system, children engage in play until the age of 7. It's supervised play, but it's different than what we do here. And studies have found that countries that utilize the Waldorf system actually have students that not only catch up but surpass the standardized test scores (math and science) of western countries later in their education. I can't name the studies...I thought I was just watching an interesting TV show, not prepping for a blog post. But they are out there. Stick with me. I don't really understand all the factors that underlie the outcome. I'm just saying that there is something there. And maybe it's not just about little kids but bigger kids too. Maybe there is a benefit of not pushing a college student into to a too narrowly-focused field of study so soon. Maybe, where play can be foundational to grade school learning, we can extrapolate that exploring the arts can be foundational to later learning. I don't know. Just something to think about.

Second thing: Daniel Pink. I've mentioned his book, "A Whole New Mind" a couple of times before but am guessing only the few die-hard One Louder readers among you (not sure you are out there of if that's just the crickets) could even recall. Anyway, the book talks about the shift in the current economy from a workplace that values left-brain thinking to one that outsources left-brain dominant tasks and see right-brain thinking as a valued talent differentiator. Well, if you think about the "professions" versus the liberal arts, which one is more right-brain focused and which more left? Mmm hmm. Great book, by the way, if you are looking for something to read. Of course I liked it; Righty McRightbrain over here.

I'm not qualified to advise anyone on education decisions, universities or individuals. And I am definitely not defending or promoting anything. I'm just saying that I think what we are experiencing is a point-in-time perspective that is reactive to the job market and that the solution may not be as simple as it seems.

(And I am on some pretty impressive cold meds right now, so don't blame my USC education for my coherent writing skills today...or lack thereof)

Comments (5)

  1. Mike says:

    One of your best posts Heather!

    My own experience on this topic is that … "it really doesn’t matter too much", not in the grand scheme of things. I did an Arts degree and am currently the Director of Research for a Financial Software Company. I’ve yet to do a computer science course yet spent all my working hours dreaming up new and innovative ways of interacting with sophisticated software???

    Most of what I’ve learned about work AND life I got from Thoreau’s Essay … "Where I lived and What I lived for".

    I’ve distilled it down to something very simple … if you can find something you have a passion for, run with it 🙂



  2. Michael says:

    As a college student myself, I’ve thought plenty about this issue. In the history of education there are a couple different trends, one of which is the apprenticeship model, based on equipping a person for a specific craft. The other is a much broader liberal arts approach which teaches about the world, history and life in general.

    Of course the social element and simply being thrown on your own resources to plan your life are huge experiences as well, which are equally valuable in my opinion.

    While it’s great to educate yourself for a specific profession if you know you want to pursue it, that’s great. But when it comes down to it, your career choice at age 18 is motivated by a very short term perspective, your parents, limited knowledge of self, and whatever field happens to be hiring or paying lots of money at the moment. But the fact of the matter is that most people don’t know what they want to do with their life at age 18, and if they think they do, they’ll probably change their mind anyway.

    As tempting as it is to picture universities as job factories that train people for specific jobs and then get them hired right away, that’s not really very realistic unless you want an Atlas Shrugged style job placement board that assigns everyone to a profession.

  3. HeatherLeigh says:

    Mike – thanks for sharing that. Most of what I have learned about business, I’ve learned from over-thinking everything 🙂  I’m going to check out that Thoreau essay.

    Michael (not to be confused with Mike) – very well said. One benefit of my relative immaturity in my younger years was that I totally feared committing to a profession. So I ended up doing what my dad recommended, graduated during a recession and fell into what I do now. So many people have a simlar story.

    I like the idea of universities exposing students to the things that will help them *decide* what they want to do with their lives. I wish I was less fearful about my future when I was young.

  4. Marley says:

    I’ve never read your blog before, but I loved your post. I am standing on the precipice of degree decisions and find myself teetering. I appreciate everyone’s thoughts from previous experience etc. My practical side says Business and Marketing, but if money was not an issue, nor what my family thought, I would jump head-first off that cliff into design school or liberal arts at the very least. So how do you decide if passion should be given headway instead of practicality?

  5. HeatherLeigh says:

    That is such a tough decision! It’s kind of a heart versus head decision. Is there any way you can do the business/marketing degree and also do some design stuff on the side or take extra classes? Do you have a support system to help you out financially if you need it? Just some things to keep in mind.

    For me, I didn’t have any financial support after I got out of college so I had to be practical. But if I did have that financial support, I’d have done something else, I think.

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