Trust the Liberal Arts

                              Gitenstein  Library,  TCNJ

There is a tendency to want the university to be a trade school rather than a place to cultivate analytic competency.

Parents who usually accompany their high school juniors or seniors on a campus tour are quick to seek reassurance that a given degree will lead to a job.  It’s a natural concern. No parent wants their teen to follow a dead-end career path. There are reasonable estimates that perhaps as many as one-third of college graduates start their working lives in jobs that do not use what a good BA or BS degree would allow.

The standard parental hedge against under-employment is to usually steer high school graduates toward professional majors in college that sound like job categories: for example, a marketing major rather than a history major, accounting rather than art history, finance rather than philosophy. There is a tendency to want the university to be a trade school rather than a place to expand intellectual competence.

In my own field of Communication Studies its a virtual given that visiting parents will want to see our campus television studio.  No one bothers to ask about the library.  The reason is obvious.  The studio seems like a workplace; parents are reassured. By contrast, the library looks less useful as a space where one simply “studies,” whatever that is.  Nice, but less tangible.

A door at Oxford University representing Astronomy and Rhetoric, two of the seven original Liberal Arts.

My own view is that parents could better help their teens by flipping these priorities over, for several reasons. One is that the job a young student imagines today is not likely to exist in the same form in five or ten years. The title may be similar, but the intellectual skills will change.  We still have librarians. But if they are going to assist patrons, they now need to be creative users of digital media.  In addition, the nature of information is less linear; library staffers need to have minds that will bend in different ways.   And, for the record, film and television majors do not spend most of their time inside a studio. They are usually out in the community shooting material.

Choosing a brand of soap may be easy, choosing a path for oneself and a family needs the advantage of high and wide horizons.

Parents are too quick to dismiss the value of a liberal arts degree.  The widespread view is that it is a kind of intellectual smorgasbord focused on disciplines the faculty may like to teach, but have less relevance to the “real world.” They are wrong for a couple of reasons.

First, the original and still relevant meaning of a “liberal arts education” is the education of a free person.  Even in these days of fraught politics, many if not enough students are fortunate to have the resources to construct a life for themselves that will open up their options. American life presents a huge ranges of potential choices. And while choosing a brand of soap may be easy, choosing a path for oneself needs the advantage of high and wide horizons. It makes sense to enlarge the circumference of the area of what we know. This also has the subtle but real advantage of enlarging the circumference of the expanding borderlands of the unknown.  We are actually smarter for knowing the limits of our knowledge. Probes that have led a person to explore everything from logic to anthropology make us more empathetic and curious partners, parents, consumers and citizens.

I recently listened to the recorded rants of David Koresh, the Waco, Texas religious leader who sacrificed the lives of 79 members of his sect to the bullets and fire of federal ATF agents. His failed life is an extreme case.  Even so, it seems likely that this high school dropout with a primitive theology would have been less lethal had he possessed the wider parameters of a decent education.

Second, the processes learned when studying sociology, psychology, reasoning, human communication or music are eminently practical in increasing a person’s choices later on. For example, most students who get undergraduate degrees in philosophy do not wither away, as some might think, nor do they typically become professional philosophers. My experience is that they tend to be whip-smart analysts of data and trends. The same could be said for a host of people trained in the fields of American literature, contemporary American history or interpersonal communication.  These days, education is more about understanding systems and processes than static facts.  So analysis and criticism—the essence of most Liberal Arts disciplines—is the perfect match for fields that want innovators, creative disruptors, and problem-solvers. The most evident self-starters I see on my own campus seem to be writing for the campus paper, producing plays and videos, or organizing special-interest clubs. They are not intimidated by engagement with members of a diverse community.

The value of these analytical skills was affirmed in a conversation with the parent of an applicant a few months ago.  At an open house she mentioned that she worked on wall street for an investment firm, noting that they were especially interested in hiring people whose paths through college didn’t necessarily include majors in a business curriculum.  She was suggesting that her firm wanted people who understood human and organizational problems, not just economic equations.