- 74% of employers surveyed would recommend a liberal arts education to prepare for success in today’s global economy. In addition, 3/4 of employers want new hires with the skills that the humanities teach: critical thinking, complex problem solving, and written and oral communications. (“It Takes More Than a Major”, Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013)
“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”
— Steve Jobs (1995–2011), former CEO of Apple, Inc.
Over the past year, I’ve spoke with many soon-to-be graduating high school seniors about their next steps after completing their tertiary education. Many share with me that they aren’t necessarily sure at this time (which I assure them is “ok” contrary to conventional wisdom) while others share with me that they want to go into the STEM fields and major in computer science or in some other form of technological study. If I have the time and capacity to explore their reply further, I will ask them “why” they are seeking to do that (or, what will you do with the degree) and often they say its because of the perceived utility in the degree or the money they should be able to make with that degree. I don’t disagree with that reasoning, but when I look at what they’ve done to prepare for a training in those related fields, there sometimes is a disconnect in where their interests and talents might lie. I try not to discourage them from their current understanding. Hell? After I left military service, I went to college with the mindset that I would get my degree in Mechanical Engineering and after one CAD class, I quickly learned that this wasn’t for me. I usually share with them about my alma mater, which was a liberal arts school and what I went to school and how not only fulfilling it was for me, but also what I gained from the study that remains incredibly marketable in today’s workforce.
A few years ago, former Kentucky governor Matt Bevin wanted students majoring in electrical engineering to receive state subsidies for their education, but didn’t want to support those who study subjects such as French literature. Bevin is not alone in trying to nudge higher education toward course work that promotes better future job prospects. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a former presidential candidate, put it bluntly last year by calling for more welders and fewer philosophers (to which he immediately backed away from later on when called to task about it).
As a admissions officer, I feel its incredibly important that we make aware to our young graduating high school students on the value and opportunities that exist within the liberal arts in the same regard as we do for those in the STEM fields.
I quoted Steve Jobs earlier in this writing, because Steve Jobs, he was neither a coder nor a hardware engineer. He stood out among the tech elite because he brought an artistic sensibility to the redesign of clunky mobile phones and desktop computers. He took something innovative and made it beautiful to the eye in the same sense that a history major is able to capture a time in history and make it conducive and palatable to those who are reading it for the first time.
A degree in the liberal arts prepares students not only to make a living, but also to make a life. It can, for example, prepare students to reckon with a broad variety of lived experiences — work, love, death, joy, creativity, faith, injustice, disagreement, conflict, intolerance, ethics, values, and all of the myriad choices that make up the human experience. Critical thinking, communication, creative problem solving, self-expression, innovative research, and lifelong learning — all skills a liberal arts degree emphasizes — are central to a great career and a well-lived life.
It is never obsolete!
Those same skills, moreover, are precisely the ones required for marrying artistic design with the engineering refinements needed to differentiate high-end cars, clothes or cell phones from legions of marketplace competitors — the type of expertise, in fact, that is least likely to be threatened by computers, robots and other job usurpers.
It creates habits of the mind that facilitate a life of learning and growth, professional and personal. It exercises the muscle of the mind, preparing it not just for specialized tasks and abilities, but also for learning itself, making learning faster, more thorough, and more permanent. It facilitates thinking for oneself, evaluating argument and evidence based not on the external authority of peers, parents, professors, or professionals, but on one’s own apprehension, experiences, and creative use of information and ideas. Educational breadth frees the mind to consider and engage a broad variety of things, cultivating intellectual and conceptual openness. It increases students’ ability to situate people, things, and events in a broader context, enabling students to map relationships between fields of study, things, and ideas.
Life is interdisciplinary. The skills students need to create a code that goes within a website that cuts and sorts a large field of data is not the same skill or even question as the skill to understand how, when, what, or even why that data needed to be cut and sorted in the first place. It also can help with asking the question of “why does it matter”?
Today, more than ever, we should be imploring students to seek schools and trainings that highlight the hallmarks of character, competence, and community. Liberal arts colleges are steeped in opportunities to engage intellectually and to reflect deeply across all disciplines (including, STEM-related fields) about what character means, why it matters, and how one might live these principles out. And there are many chances over four years for students to actually engage in challenges that test and develop their character that go well beyond the aspect of technical and clinical learning.
Thus, I implore all those in connection to high school seniors to not only tell them about majors and universities that will “look good on their resume” (as if the other majors and schools won’t) or provide a potential pathway to a high paying job, but to share with them majors and universities that will lead them to a higher resolve in their life’s pursuits and personal values. Ones that will lead to creating a more compassionate and empathetic community that marries what “is” with what “could be”. (Thanks for reading!)