Students & Parents | General Education

No: Liberal arts education produces better citizens, more rewarding careers

June 9, 2016 by Michael B. Poliakoff

A liberal arts education uniquely provides workplace skills new graduates need for rewarding, remunerative careers.

A strong liberal arts foundation, combined with either a major or well-chosen courses that align with entry into a specific career, is far more effective than narrow vocational preparation.

The digital age has accelerated the pace of our lives, including how quickly Americans change jobs or their entire career paths.

Research by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that those born in the late 1950s held an average of more than 11 jobs between the ages of 18 and 46.

There has never been a time when training has become obsolete more quickly than it does now. And the imperative of understanding other cultures and nations has never been as urgent.

A liberal arts foundation – which by definition embraces strong writing skills, scientific reasoning, foreign language, analytical reasoning and mathematics – is the best preparation to meet these tides of change.

“Academically Adrift,” the groundbreaking book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, examines the cognitive gain of students majoring in different fields, based on a highly regarded assessment of academic value added.

Students in traditional liberal arts fields such as social science, humanities, mathematics and science showed overall significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing than students majoring in business, education, communications, health or even engineering and computer science.

In other words, they got a lot smarter. They got ready for a dynamic, shifting job market.

Employers concur. In a classic 20-year study released in 1981, Bell Laboratories found that liberal arts majors progressed more rapidly and in greater percentages than other staff.

Is this ancient history not relevant to today?

Hardly: A major 2015 Hart Research Survey found 81 percent of employers called for improvement in “knowledge and skills that apply to a range of fields or positions.”

Only 48 percent called for improvement in preparation for a specific field. In a recession, employment for quite a few of the specialized technical fields will grow scarce.

Those who can write and speak effectively and those with enough background in economics to understand market forces are going to do a lot better than those without such skills.

The debate is not new. In 1852, John Henry Cardinal Newman warned that an individual “trained to think upon one subject or for one subject only, will never be a good judge even in that one: whereas the enlargement of his circle gives him increased knowledge and power in a rapidly increasing ratio.”

In 1916, the American philosopher John Dewey observed, “Only superstition makes us believe … that a subject is illiberal because it is useful and cultural because it is useless. It will generally be found that instruction which, in aiming at utilitarian results, sacrifices the development of imagination … also in the same degree renders what is learned limited in its use.”

Fast forward to today. Students who put narrow training ahead of the liberal learning that educates for career, community, and citizenship make a bad bargain with the future.

It is, in reality, eminently possible to have it all, including all the benefits of a career and a life shaped by values.

A solid core of foundational courses in natural science, foreign language, literature, economics, American government and history, expository writing and mathematics will take up no more than one-quarter of an undergraduate’s credit hours for graduation.

There is plenty of time left for a major and even a minor. As Dewey observed, liberal learning and practical applications draw strength from each other. They need each other.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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