College graduates still learn more than high school graduates over the course of their careers. But a recent PayScale survey found that managers increasingly say recent grads lack basic writing, speaking, and problem solving skills.
Traditionally, students have developed these skills through general education programs, which make up roughly one-third of most students’ academic programs. As students begin the new academic year, they are well-served to remember that general education programs are not a burden, but opportunities to develop high-demand skills through courses in the liberal arts.
Take it from the array of business leaders who have praised the liberal arts for developing the skills demanded by the labor market. Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International, recently pointed out that students in every discipline benefit from liberal arts education: “I think communication skills, analytical skills, and life-long learning are huge pluses, even in a STEM career. This is something that very much enhances employment prospects and career growth for liberal arts students.”
Other business leaders have credited their own professional success to liberal arts backgrounds. Marc Benioff, the founder and co-CEO of salesforce.com, learned about business from a classic Chinese text: “Since I first read The Art of War more than a dozen years ago, I have applied its concepts to many areas of my life … ultimately, it is how salesforce.com took on the entire software industry.”
Traditional liberal arts disciplines include literature, philosophy, mathematics, economics, religion, and history, as well as core courses in foundational sciences such as biology, physics, or chemistry. According to a Council of Scholars well-designed core programs complement majors across academic disciplines. A statistics course, for example, teaches English majors how to interpret data relationships. Wrestling with great works of literature that investigate the perennial human questions cultivates critical thinking skills that are important for every professional, but demonstrably help engineering students, in particular, to think in more creative ways.
Lab-based courses in the natural sciences help students who study human behavior to understand the experimental method that built the modern world. American government and history, meanwhile, help build a shared sense of purpose by teaching the citizenry about America’s principles and institutions, and the country’s political development.
A number of reputable schools understand the value of general education programs in the liberal arts. The University of Georgia requires undergraduate students in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences to take foundational courses in composition, literature, mathematics, and the physical and life sciences. The school also requires a course on the United States Constitution and a survey course in American history. Columbia University, famous for its Great Books curriculum, requires courses in Western music, art, literature, philosophy, and history.
A 2018 Strada-Gallup survey shows that alumni appreciate rigorous educational programs, and that “Graduates who strongly agree that they were challenged academically are about 3.6 times more likely to say they were prepared for life outside of college.” Courses such as Science in Film, American History through Baseball, and History of Rock n’ Roll in America may appeal to students surfing the catalog for an easy “A.” But when students opt out of the study of Shakespeare or the American founding with classes on zombies and vampires, they are risking their chances of success in the labor market and neglecting an important opportunity to develop intellectual tastes that would enrich their lives for years to come.
Nathaniel Urban is the program manager for curricular improvement at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.