Column: Learn to Think, Write, and Collaborate with a Liberal Arts Degree | Columnists


David Dreyer

When discussing higher education on a conservative radio show, then-Governor of North Carolina Pat McCrory said, “I think part of the educational elite has taken control of our education where we offer courses that have no chance of finding jobs. … I’m going to tailor my curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs, instead of going back to living with their parents after graduating with debt.

More recently, Senator Ted Cruz said in reaction to President Biden’s student debt cancellation plan that if you’re “that lazy barista who wasted seven years in college studying completely useless things, now has ready and can’t find a job, Joe Biden just gave you twenty thousand dollars. He didn’t specify what he says qualifies as a study of ‘useless stuff’. One can imagine though that he doesn’t like spending his time at university learning things like art history, French poetry or multicultural affairs.

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The liberal arts have been under siege in recent years. According to this argument, education should focus on workplace training. Those who want to work in commerce or medicine should not be required to take courses in literature and philosophy. Students should be encouraged to pursue studies in technical or vocational fields. Graduate with a liberal arts degree, it is thought, and you are left with a mountain of debt and few prospects.

The number of students graduating in the humanities, a core liberal arts field, has steadily declined. In 2020, only 4% of college graduates earned a degree in a traditional humanities major (English, history, philosophy, or a foreign language). Students are increasingly choosing to pursue degrees in business, engineering, health care, and other fields not traditionally associated with the liberal arts.

Obtaining a professional or professional degree can be useful for those who wish to work in these fields. But it’s not the only path to financial success and personal fulfillment. A liberal arts education can, among other things, prepare students for a dynamic workforce and provide hard-to-measure non-monetary benefits.

The monetary benefit of earning a liberal arts degree may be greater than many realize. The median salary of students with a liberal arts degree is lower than the median of all college graduates, but not by much (a salary difference of about $5,000 per year according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences ). In general, those who earn a college degree in any major (including liberal arts) have significantly higher earning potential than those who do not earn a college degree ($1 million on average according to a oft-cited study from Georgetown University in 2015).

Degrees with clearly defined career paths can perhaps provide a more seamless transition into the job market. But markets are often disrupted. Many of those who enter or will soon enter the labor market will not maintain the same job, or even the same profession, throughout their careers. Training for a specific job can result in being well qualified to work in that profession. But it can also be limiting. For many, learning skills in general, without knowing where you might end up in the future, can be more beneficial than training for a specific job or profession that you might not stick with for the long term.

A liberal education can equip job seekers with a broad base of soft skills that can be adapted to changing market conditions. Specifically, as CNN host Fareed Zakaria argues in In Defense of a Liberal Education, a liberal education teaches how to think, write, speak, and learn.

One of the main purposes of a college education, it is often said, is to foster the development of critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is essential to evaluating and solving problems. The ability to solve problems effectively is important not only in any profession, but in life in general.

A liberal education also teaches how to write. Learning to write, notes Zakaria, makes you think. Writing requires clarifying and organizing one’s thoughts, which might otherwise be “a jumble of half-formed ideas strung together, with gaping holes between them”, as he puts it.

Writing does take practice. Many students enter college having had limited or no writing experience. I’ve had freshmen who insisted they didn’t have to write a single paper in high school! Developing writing skills, like developing any other skill, requires consistent practice over a long period of time.

Writing academic papers requires going beyond summarizing information. Students learn to write analytically, argumentatively and creatively. This involves critically evaluating ideas, forming one’s own opinions and presenting them intelligibly.

Participation is often a component of course notes in liberal arts courses. Virtually all jobs involve collaboration at one level or another. Working effectively with others in a professional setting requires listening, an often underestimated aspect of communications, and clearly putting your thoughts into words. Liberal arts courses provide students with opportunities to hone their communication skills.

Perhaps more importantly, as Zakaria points out, a liberal education teaches how to learn. Learning does not have to end with obtaining a diploma. Continuous learning is necessary to adapt to an ever-changing society. A liberal education promotes the development of the skills necessary to acquire, synthesize and integrate new knowledge.

Zakaria likens a general education in the liberal arts to cross-training sports. Training in different ways reinforces his main area of ​​competence.

Engagement with a variety of academic fields can also reveal strengths or interests someone may not have known they had. The use of what one learns is not always immediately apparent. But you may find that something you learned that you thought was useless at the time is useful for something later.

“No knowledge is wasted,” wrote neurosurgeon and more recently Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson in his memoir “Gifted Hands.” As a young adult, Carson studied, among other things, art and classical music, something he initially knew little about and had little interest in, hoping to participate and to win a television quiz called the College Bowl. Although he never ended up on the show, learning the arts later helped him find a job (an interviewer who had an interest in the arts was impressed by Carson’s knowledge of classical music , which Carson was convinced was what ultimately landed him the job), connecting with the woman who later became his wife, and led to a lifelong appreciation and enjoyment of something he otherwise would not have had much exposure or knowledge.

A liberal education can make a better employee. But it goes way beyond that. A liberal upbringing, at the risk of sounding sensationalistic, makes us better human beings. Learning about other cultures and perspectives, if done carefully and if we are open to it, can make us more empathetic and better able to relate to others. A liberal upbringing, Zakaria argues, “gives us a greater ability to be good workers, but it will also give us the ability to be good partners, friends, relatives, and citizens.”

I realize that being able to afford, financially and otherwise, to devote one’s time to the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself, comes from a privileged position. Life circumstances sometimes demand a singular focus on making ends meet in the short term. But while it’s possible to spend time doing it, there are few things as valuable as learning about promiscuity.

Heed the warnings and practically think about a career when making big decisions like whether or not to pursue a degree or what to choose for a college major. But don’t lose sight of the fundamental importance of exploring, discovering, connecting and engaging in ways that give purpose and meaning to our lives.

David Dreyer is Director of General Education and Professor of Political Science at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

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