Critics of the Liberal Arts Are Wrong

Yes, science and tech are important, but a new report shows that employers prize a more broadly-based education

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The question of whether our government should promote science and technology or the liberal arts in higher education is not an either-or proposition, although the current emphasis on preparing young Americans for STEM-related fields can make it seem that way.

(MORE: College Costs: Would Tuition Discounts Get More Americans to Major in Science?)

I sat on a commission put together by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to explore this very question, and the subsequent congressional report, released today, acknowledges the critical importance of technical training but also asserts without equivocation that the study of the humanities and social sciences must remain central components of America’s educational system at all levels. Both areas are critical to producing citizens who can participate effectively in our democratic society, become innovative leaders and benefit from the spiritual enrichment that the contemplation of ethics, morals, aesthetics and the great ideas over time can provide.

The commission was created in 2011 at the request of members of the Senate and the House of Representatives and in a time of great economic uncertainty and insecurity. Parents and students who have invested heavily in higher education fret about graduates’ job prospects as technological advances and changes in domestic and global markets transform professions in ways that reduce wages and cut jobs. Under these circumstances, it is natural to look for what may appear to be the most “practical” way out of the problem: “Major in a subject designed to get you a job” seems the obvious answer to some, though this ignores the fact that many disciplines in the humanities characterized as “soft” often, in fact, lead to employment and success in the long run. Indeed, according to surveys, employers have expressed a preference for students who have received a broadly based education that has taught them to write well, think critically, research creatively and communicate easily.

(MORE: What High School Graduation Speeches Should Say But Don’t)

Moreover, students should be prepared not just for their first job but for their fourth and fifth jobs, as there is little reason to doubt that people entering the workforce today will be called upon to play many different roles over the course of their careers. The ones who will do best in this new environment will be those whose educations have prepared them to be flexible.  Those with the ability to draw upon every available tool and insight — gleaned from science, arts and technology — to solve the problems of the future and take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves will stand themselves and the U.S. in good stead.

(MORE: The Real Reason Women Don’t Choose STEM Careers)

In May 1780, while away in France, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail expressing his hopes for the progress of the American experiment. “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My Sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Granted, there were poets and musicians in America in his time, but what Adams was really expressing was “the truth that a country must have a sufficient level of wealth, stability and security before large numbers of its citizens can engage in pursuits broader than the basic struggle for survival that war and politics — the substitute for war — address.” Despite our economic woes, the U.S. is a wealthy nation. We have the capacity to create and maintain an educational system that trains students in science, math, history, art and other disciplines, at the very highest level. Will we continue to fulfill the worthy vision for the nation that Adams set forth?

112 comments
a.boredguy6
a.boredguy6

Could you link or list some of the employers that are hiring LA grads? It does not have to be exhaustive or very detailed, simply every time I read articles about "Liberal Arts are in Demand !" or  "Employers love Liberal arts" - or something to that effect, the author never reveals who these employers are. And off the bat I want to exclude retail and fast food. I do not doubt your  premise Mrs. Gordon-Reed but in a time when we have more job seekers than jobs, when "entry level" requires 2-3 years of previous experience, I have to question: are the Liberal arts as competitive as the Business and STEM majors out there? Does the English grad have a realistic shot at getting hired at IBM , KPMG, Prudential, Ernst and Young etc.... or should one just major in IT or finance?

You say that employers value the LA grads, who are these employers? Please on behalf of myself and every mal-employed LA grad working at Shop Rite, Stop and Shop, Autozone etc.... who are these employers? Surely we did not spend 4 years of college and graduate in debt to find that the LA best job prospects are McDonalds and Wendys and yet here is where the majority of us are. Who are these employers that value the Liberal arts? Does the LA grad really stand a shot at employment against  the finance, the accounting majors etc...?

ThomasE.Reed
ThomasE.Reed

Schools don't need to create leaders. The leaders are already in charge, and are known as the One Percent. What America needs is more drone labor, coolies, slaves, whatever you want to call them. Or rather, call us. The humanities are near useless for creation of those individuals - except for Lady Gaga, Madonna, Britney Spears or the ilk, who make drone labor of their fans.

prioripete
prioripete

...yeah, but white women don't need any education to get a job!

LokHupBaFa
LokHupBaFa

To get a non Liberal Arts degree, you take more hours -- ie you take the Liberal Art classes plus the extra math and science.  The Engineers and Scientist were in those classes with you, and wrote as many papers, read the same books.  But they actually expanded their little bubbles to practical information.  The reason employees hire so many Liberal Art majors, is that there is so many of them, and they don't need to be paid much.  Engineers are rarer, and cost more to hire.    When looking for cheap labor, you take what you can get... now look at the unemployment rate for STEM grads, and ask yourself why it is so low compared to general unemployment....

Why do Liberal Arts majors think Engineers didn't take writing, social science, and English lit?  They are core classes required by every major.  The Engineers were the ones who got easy A's in the Liberal Arts classes you were struggling with -  they were killing themselves studying the hard courses like Chemistry -- while the Liberal Arts majors were getting drunk and making excuses to the professors about their late papers

lazarus00000
lazarus00000

The college level courses need to be made practicle. I am fully supportive in the Arts related programs as long as the student is also able to get a secon degree with which they could apply to a career. Careers in liberal arts are limited and Student. We have suffered in society when these types of classes were cut from the high Schools and earlier because that is when children's minds are growing and such experience is needed.

But lets wake up and stop funding such degrees in College. The truly gifted will shine early on and hopefully get all the assistance they need to fulfill their destiny. But the goal should be to get the kids working, paying taxes and so on.

We might also want to fire all the communist professors in college as well who teach their hateful rhetoric to the young minds.

Lazarus

TooMuchMe
TooMuchMe

Come on, everyone! It's funny because as an English major everyone would ask me 'what are you gonna do with that?' To which I responded 'Every single potential line of work needs good communicators. There is a whole world of opportunity in a writing career.'Result? I love my life. There is not a day where I don't use the skills I developed in my classes. I have a flexibility in my career choices unmatched by anyone I know. I have worked in everything from technical writing to copywriting and marketing to journalism. The internet has provided a ridiculous amount of opportunities for writers.But as for the philosophers out there? I have no idea what the hell they were thinking, nor what they are doing.

jack_stem
jack_stem

This article implies the only way one learns is via sitting in a classroom. I have  a STEM degree and it did help me get my first job. To the extent that I need to prepare for my 4th and 5th jobs, it's up to me to be an ongoing learner. I'm an avid reader and "self improver" and it's insulting that the only way I can be prepared when 50 is via what I learned at 19. It's also terrible to students that we will them the only way they can be well rounded is by going into enormous debt. You can become very well rounded via frequent trips to the free public library.

Nelba
Nelba

Degrees of the Top Ten Fortune 500 CEOs.  The list below reveals 7 of the Top Ten CEOS have Engineering Degrees, 2 Economics, and 1 Math.   At my University Math and Economics were considered Liberal Arts majors. All have a strong quantitative aspect to them in addition to everything else.

Alan R. Mulally,  Ford Motors, B.S, Aeronautical Engineering

William R. Klesse, Valero Energy  B.A., Chemical Engineering

Jeffrey R. Immelt, General Electric B.A., Applied Mathematics

Daniel F. Akerson, General Motors B.S., Engineering 

Timothy D. Cook, Apple B.S., Industrial Engineering

Warren E. Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway B.S., Economics

Greg C. Garland,  Phillips66 B.S., Chemical Engineering

John S. Watson, Chevron B.S., Agricultural Economics

Rex W. Tillerson, Exxon Mobil B.S., Civil Engineering

Michael T. Duke, Walmart Stores B.S., Industrial Engineering


Nelba
Nelba

This article claims to be a rebuttal to "Critics of the Liberal Arts" as the title says.  Yet it never identifies who these critics are, not does it quote any of them.   It is strange to rebut people and statements who are unknown.

BenjaminMontgomery
BenjaminMontgomery

Here's the deal.  Every engineer I know loves the arts, he or she can play an instrument, or loves poetry or art.  None of the liberal arts types I know have the slightest interest in science.  Figure it out.

chaokai60
chaokai60

It's good to have the liberal arts education together with technical training and business education and done with the critical thinking.   

TyroneGood
TyroneGood

Confirmed by my own job, working government, and friends working Google/Amazon. English majors are desirable, so are computer sciences, etcetera. You just need hunger and not enough time on your hands to keyboard warrior under the name of a weakass bird!

hummingbird
hummingbird

The author of this article wants students to major in the humanities so that she and other liberal arts college professors can continue to have a job. Short of becoming highly successful writers, they have to be college professors as all of their degrees are in the humanities. They can't go to Wall St. or Google with those liberal arts degrees.

hummingbird
hummingbird

By the way, newscasters Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric have only Bachelors degrees in English but most English majors won't be as fortunate as they are. In today's tight/competitive job market, it probably would be best for a prospective journalist to have a Bachelors in Communication or Journalism or even a Masters in it.

hummingbird
hummingbird

This article is not convincing! The only place you can get employment these days with a major in the liberal arts is in a school/college. The business places don't want it.  You'll have to go back to college to study something more marketable and profitable if you dare to major in the liberals arts and you don't want to be a teacher or professor. 

STEM and Business/Finance majors have the advantage! They just need to be encouraged to do some liberal arts courses as their electives so they can have a broad education. Every college student has to do English courses so the humanities is a part of every college student's life.

JCPianiste
JCPianiste

I think the problem with this article is that it tries to say that English majors have an advantage because STEM folks don't know how to communicate, which is simply not true.  The skills for effective communication can be developed outside of a degree, and many people do just that.  In contrast, if you go into a tech interview without a degree, you are not likely to get very far.  To be sure, some do - but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

Don't get me wrong, I do think subjects like English, foreign languages, the arts, etc make us better and more interesting people, and I think it would be a better world if people could actually go to college just for the joy of learning instead of being so practical about things - unfortunately, college tuition costs being what they are, that's not a reality for most of us :\

jonmcn49
jonmcn49

"  just as there are more english majors than there are jobs, it does not necessarily make sense to assume that they should all study STEM instead. "

Have you taken collage chemistry vs English 1A? These humanities majors are not going to transfer in anything approaching significance and we know why. They went into humanities for a reason and many eschew science, most probably because they can not cut it.

Of course humanities are needed, but in the balance they weigh lightly against the sciences. 

condenasty
condenasty

couple things: 1) just as there are more english majors than there are jobs, it does not necessarily make sense to assume that they should all study STEM instead. the fact is that there are more people than there are jobs - i doubt that STEM fields could accommodate every liberal arts major who could jump ship, especially when many of those jobs are geared towards improving the efficiency with which tasks are automated (i.e. increasing the speed with which jobs are eliminated). 

2) the rivalry between the liberal arts and STEM is a reflection of a fallacious analogy between the relative functions of two separate spheres of human inquiry. the humanities do not produce knowledge in the way that the hard sciences do, and the sciences are not capable of performing ethical/aesthetic/political reasoning. STEM teaches students stuff - facts, systems, skills, approaches, habits etc. the humanities are supposed to make its students more complete as humans by enriching their understanding of history, communication, art. this isn't the same kind of project and it doesn't make sense to talk about these two kinds of knowledge as if they "successful" and "unsuccessful" (or "useful" and "useless") flavors of the same thing. 

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

With robots or 3rd worlders doing most of the work these days, a new economic and social order is necessary.

We can't keep telling people to 'get a damn job' while eliminating all the jobs they are able to perform.

We can't keep letting immigrants in to increase competition for the few jobs left, which lowers wages even further.

The only long term solution to our economic problems related to automation is free-market socialism followed by free-market communism. Redistribution, and a lot of it, is the only way the vast majority of mankind is going to survive.

The Google Glass factory is going to be built here, and it's going to employ about 15 people. The future is now, and we need to deal with it now.

http://llltexas.com

JasonPaskowitz
JasonPaskowitz

Agreed. The "stick it to those college punks" types who love to gloat over people suffering with unmanageable debt loads are the most vocal about cutting back on support for the liberal arts and critical thinking. Not surprisingly, this Archie Bunker demographic, and their tea trash extremist politicians, are the ones most threatened by a classically-trained, critical liberal-thinking population.

tweetybrd20
tweetybrd20

I have just come to this realization being an undergrad at TCU, I came in majoring in Information Technology and changed to Communication Studies. So it's great that my choices will not be in vain. STEM fields are very important but if you're like me and you have hands-on training in technology then you don't need a degree to work in a particular IT job, that's one of the reasons I changed majors people who work in IT rarely have a degree in that field it's mostly stuff they've either taught themselves or learn from someone else.

SeanWhite
SeanWhite

"think critically" must mean being able to come up with stuff like "it's a tax"

Frank_Grimes
Frank_Grimes

The same people who thought it was a good idea to get $200,000 in school loans to major in Philosophy, or 19th century French poetry, are the same ones crying that they can't pay back their loans.  Go figure!  They couldn't get a job at the Philosophy factory 

jimsumm71
jimsumm71

People are going to have 4 or 5 technical jobs in their lifetime.  Who would you bet on being able to do that, someone who has learned enough to be qualified for 1 technical job, or someone who has never been qualified for any technical job?

Harkonnen
Harkonnen

This is a pure fantasy unless you bring some demonstrable skills (analytics, programming, etc.) along with that liberal arts degree. Please take a look at the open jobs available. None of them require a liberal arts background and none of them will for the foreseeable future. The only deviation from that would be a field of study that delivers a fluency in a foreign language.

Full disclosure: I have a BA in European History which makes me slightly interesting at parties. Fortunately for me, I spent my post-graduate years building up the tech skills that I should have been double-majoring in university.

gentrumpet
gentrumpet

I have an M.A. in a liberal arts field and can't find a job; therefore, I increasingly side with the STEM folks on this issue.  The liberal arts folks have to figure out a *convincing* way to communicate to the world that their fields have value within the context of a capitalist economy.  If the liberal arts folks can't do this, then either capitalism needs to go or the liberal arts need to go (maybe the liberal arts don't need to go away entirely, perhaps they should be treated more like hobbies that one pursues in one's spare time). 

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

Ahhhhh...  This article hits all the classic buttons of a liberal arts person who's never actually APPLIED all those "critical thinking" skills she learned in college to the topic at hand.  Here's my favorite line:

"The ones who will do the best in this new environment will be those whose educations have prepared them to be flexible." 

What's implied is that these "flexible" students have majored in the liberal arts instead of STEM.  Of course, there's no particular evidence given as to why a clever student majoring in, say, history, would be better at being flexible than a clever student majoring in, say, mechanical engineering.  Similarly, for that matter, what do creative, logical, or critical thinking skills have to do with the major, precisely?

I would argue that the engineer who needs to figure out how to repair the dam before it's too late needs to be "flexible" and good at "critical thinking" -- wouldn't you?  How about the guy who designs the next airplane, or the one who optimizes the shape of your car?  Or the guy who lays out the next, faster computer chip, or who details the algorithms needed to run programs off that chip most quickly?  Or who completes the surgery on your heart, or saves you from dying after an accident?  Or the guy who designs a complicated collection of measurement sources, then uses those results to estimate changes in hydrology and quantify how large a water reserves is prudent for a metropolitan area?

What IS this humanities breed of "logic" which implies that these classic STEM tasks (and many more) don't involve as much "flexible" and "critical" thinking as classic non-STEM tasks?  It's true that the mindset of most STEM professionals is different than that of many non-STEM professionals.  It's more focused on accurately measuring things and then using those measurements to prove or disprove some point.  As such, it tends to be heavily (but not entirely) quantitative.  But that same mindset can be (and sometimes is) applied well to social topics, or political ones, or economic ones, or historical ones, as well as purely mathematical ones.  Why does the desire to numerically calculate statistics and use those facts and statistics to come to a conclusion make STEM workers "inflexible" or bad at "critical thinking"?  Do you WANT your doctor to tell you that if you do X, you have a 75% better chance of survival because of chemical interaction Y, or do you want him to just shrug and claim, "X often works, from what I've seen."?

MickeyCashen
MickeyCashen

The article points out the obvious need for communications skills, but dances around the fact there have been -ever at least the 60's- many more English majors than jobs.  He implies that people with English majors often find in their 4th or 5th jobs that their skills are useful.  Think about how MORE useful they'd be if they majored in whatever that job most requires and minored in English!

When I was getting ready to graduate from high school in 1968 and major in chemistry, I had a short story published in our high school's literary magazine.  An uncle was upset, thinking that meant I planned to major in English: "I'll introduce you to my son's friend.  He's got an English degree and he's been driving a cab for three years."

I will admit that before the 2008 crash, teaching had become such a difficult, low-paying job (contrary to the liars trying to end the pensions that help balance it out) that it often took schools 6 months or more to find replacement English teachers.

And I have a B.A., not a B.S. in Chemistry because my college required a TRUE college degree, not a "trade-school-college" degree and I had to have several English courses.  I still had enough Chemistry (52 credit hours as an undergrad) to get a scholarship and teaching assistantship to grad school at IIT.

But my advice to anyone wanting to major in English: make sure you're at the top of your class and get teaching credentials.  Otherwise you are likely to earn a high-school grads wages.

decker.arleen
decker.arleen

My son recently graduated with a batchelors and masters in political science, an area he loves but with limited job prospects at the moment. He says the best advice he wishes he had received when entering college would have been to major in an employable field and to minor in what you love.

BurtWay
BurtWay

Should I do what I love or what is practical? This question is and always was a false one. Do both. I did. You're in college long enough. For example, a BS in Accounting has ample elective courses in which to read Chaucer & Plato, or take courses in astronomy and Art History. In the 1960s most students graduated in 4 years. Now it is more like 5 years, due to changes of major, etc. This gives you even greater opportunity to pursue alternative paths. Another fallacy in a lot of these comments is a common one. It assumes a 18 year old knows the answer to "What do you want to do?" when they merely IMAGINE what they want to do. They have no idea what it is like being a real nurse, engineer, etc. Some else comments about a poorly paid social worker who gets satisfaction working a suicide hotline. I know a engineer who works a suicide hotline at nights after work and gets paid nothing. Do both!

brentsurf1
brentsurf1

I have degrees in English Literature and Linguistics. First job after graduation was as a technical writer for a computer graphics startup. Moved on to two other startup graphics engineering ventures, learned the techology, worked with PHD engineers from MIT, UCB, Harvery Mudd, Stanford, etc. Had a great career with very smart people, made a ton of money, learned new cutting edge graphics technology constantly, and had a blast doing it. Just recently retired at 59 years old and don't have to work ever again. Go for it English majors; you will never regret your path.

singpay
singpay

My degree in English literature was an important step in the preparation for my lifelong career as a family physician.

allenwoll
allenwoll

A UNIVERSITY degree SHOULD imply that one has studied significantly in BOTH science/engineering and the so-called liberal arts. . The differences among individuals should lie only in the EMPHASIS of those studies ! 

Those who are in contrast "pure" either way are -- Yes -- typically and for all intents and purposes, functionally dumb as boxes of rocks ! ! -- And far, FAR worse, they constitute prime targets for political extremists and propagandists coming at them from both sides : They have not developed the necessary filtering against and resistance to dressed up old foolishness.

CamiloErazo
CamiloErazo

I think there´s nothing wrong with studying an unconventional science. it could be maths or plastic arts, but if you get to know your practical skills (communication, physical, conceptual) and develop them properly there's a good change to get a job in a non related field. 

John
John

I also disagree.  A technical degree teaches problem solving skills.   However, a lot of the liberal arts types, when it comes to practical matters, are dumb as a box of rocks.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

this sounds like sour grapes by someone who wants to validate her career path as worthwhile.  as a history major, i can safely say that my degree has been about as useful as an extra hole in my head.  yes, i love history and it was wonderful being able to go to school for it, but when it comes to practicality, there's none. pure and simple.