In Defense of Liberal Arts

February 5, 2009

Yesterday I read a post from a fellow Brazen blogger complaining that she felt her liberal arts degree was useless. What did it prepare her for? She felt she had nothing to offer companies compared to her college-of-business classmates.

I beg to differ. Choosing liberal arts was the best decision I ever made. Yes, lots of engineers and business students look down on me and think they’re more prepared for life than this little political science student.

But, at the risk of offending all of them, I can confidently say: I’d never, ever trade my liberal arts education for business or engineering or anything supposedly more career-oriented or more lucrative. And here’s why.

1. Liberal arts teaches you to think critically. This is a skill that many of my engineering friends scoff at as a “soft” skill. It’s underrated, but a skill that’s highly valued in business. Our courses were filled with heavy analysis and forced in-class discussions. We pulled all-nighters writing analytical and persuasive papers while my business friends  were at the bar, thanking their lucky stars all they had was multiple choice tests.

But at the end of the day, we learned how to analyze and examine problems from every angle. We learned how to think outside the box, try new things, take risks, defend our opinions logically, and creatively problem-solve.

Math problem sets won’t teach you that.

2. Liberal arts teaches you to be a better communicator. Writing, reading, analyzing, discussing, debating, public speaking — all are components of any good liberal arts education. And really, few things are more important to a successful career than being able to communicate with people and write well – skills which recruiters are looking for more and more.

Liberal arts majors can also carry on a conversation about almost anything thanks to our extremely well-rounded curriculum. As one commenter on the original post said….  “I also find people with liberal arts majors more fun and interesting to be around – they tend to be curious and open-minded.” We like learning about the world – and discussing it with people. This is extremely useful when you realize how important social skills are to any successful career.

Engineers…not always known for their social skills.

3. Liberal arts majors are passionate about what they do. And thus,  they make better workers. We chose our majors for no other reason than because we love learning about that subject — I knew I loved politics since I was a toddler (I wish I was exaggerating. I’m not). And we’ll try our hardest to seek out jobs that we are just as passionate about, too.

I know far, far too many business students who aren’t passionate about anything they’re learning at all — many have admitted to me that they just picked business because it seemed like an easy ticket to a cushy, high-paying job.

Would you rather have an employee who just wants a nice salary, or an employee who’s genuinely passionate about doing a good job, and wants to make a difference?

Once upon a time I used worry that my liberal arts degree put me at a disadvantage compared to professional-track majors like accounting, business, and engineering. I may have more uncertainty than a nuclear engineering student about what kind of job to pursue with my degree – but that’s not for lack of options. It’s because liberal arts degrees give you, if anything, more options.  Instead of limiting yourself to one career track, you can do almost anything. The skills and knowledge that a liberal arts degree arm you with will take you far – as long as you take advantage of them, and know how to market your degree.

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  1. I think you’ve made the right decision. Engineering or business may prepare you to compete for your paycheck more readily but it won’t make you happy or rich unless you live it 24×7. As a Director for a major global telecommunications company, I find that I am always looking for a creative outlet or the chance to exercise critical thinking that will take me outside of the boundaries of my job. In the end, we all wish we were liberal arts majors. We all wish that we had followed our hearts and not our desire for a paycheck.

    Live your dreams… money will find its way to you.

  2. As a former political science major and a woman who dates an engineer, I definitely believe there are advantages to having a liberal arts background. From knowing people who are more technically minded, they aren’t forced to think about abstract ideas or get in touch with communication that involves more than just numbers. It can be very difficult for them (and it doesn’t help that they think it’s “useless”). Perhaps it’s all about playing to your strengths. I think liberal arts majors, perhaps, feel their degrees are not as important b/c liberal arts majors (as a whole) have uncertainty marketing themselves and their relevancy to fields all across the board.

  3. Michael – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Creative outlets are definitely important and I think liberal arts more than anything really teaches you to value that.

    Raven – I love your point about how people who are more technically minded “aren’t forced to think about abstract ideas or get in touch with communication that involves more than just numbers. It can be very difficult for them (and it doesn’t help that they think it’s “useless”).” This is such a great point, and I’ve seen this to be very true with some people I know very well. They never learned how to use those skills, and now they don’t see the value in it and just see it as useless.

  4. I completely agree! Plus, I think your (our) position as minorities also makes everything we learn in the liberal arts more applicable than other students. But that’s just my opinion.

  5. Very interesting article. In life it is extremely important to follow your passion. Having said that I don’t agree with point 4 because that is a very broad statement that you have made and I think it is unfair to make such generalizations.

    I don’t think all engineers or business people don’t have passion. I have friends in engineering who eat, sleep and dream digital signal processing and that is not because they were nerds (most of these kids were in a band and had and have piercings!)or didn’t have social lives but because it excited them and that passion took form in their final project where they made their very own version of guitar hero using the stuff in the lab.

    In fact a lot of people can and do say about liberal arts folks (something that I personally feel is not true but is one of the stereotypes that is out there) is that liberal arts is the easy way out. I do know several people who took liberal arts or switched to liberal arts not because they were passionate about it but rather because they weren’t prepared to handle the rigors of engineering.

    There are people who are passionate about sines and cosines and there are people who are passionate about the rise of Hitler and the fall of communism. The question is really if they are following their passion.

    I hope that you would avoid using stereotypes in your future works.

  6. Nisha, I think a distinction should be made between attending a liberal arts school and choosing a liberal arts major. After my sophomore year I transferred from a technical (primarily engineering) school to a liberal arts school, so I may be in a unique position to make this comparison.

    A primary advantage of liberal arts schools is that they force you to give just about everything a chance during your undergrad years. It doesn’t mean you have to like every subject or even be able to remember the material the next semester. This is important because we aren’t always good at determining what we like and what we don’t without actually doing anything; and you might find something particularly interesting that you might have otherwise completely overlooked if it wasn’t a requirement for graduation.

    As for your first point, I think it is dangerous to say liberal arts students are deep thinkers and hard workers while business majors spend all their time drinking at the bar. There is more to a business education than math; one of the most important skills anyone can have in business is to be a strong communicator, and there is at least some emphasis on building those skills into the curriculum. Plus, there are more than enough hard-working business students and plenty of apathetic and alcoholic liberal arts students to make your generalization extremely weak. And also, multiple choice tests are not always easier or more preferable. It doesn’t matter if you walk into a test with no knowledge of the subject and score a 0% or a 25% – you still aren’t going to pass the class.

    Your second point attempts to prove causation where there is only correlation. It’s just as likely that inverted type-B personalities are going into the sciences and engineering as outgoing type-As are going into the liberal arts. You’d need to randomly distribute students to determine whether the liberal arts curriculum actually “teaches” people to be better writers, speakers, debaters, or communicators. If someone knows they won’t be able to make a career as a writer or a speaker; it makes a lot of sense for them to go into a field where they can spend a lot of time working in a lab.

    I don’t disagree with your conclusion; there is certainly a value to the liberal arts – and it is not useless as the Brazen post suggests. But please be careful with these arguments, because the logic is full of holes and I think the stereotypes may hurt your cause more than they help.

  7. Edit to my above post: I graduated in 08 with an engineering major and I was one class shy of completing an econ minor

  8. As my sons approach college–and the inevitable major choice–I hope that they choose a broad liberal education. These are 4 years to learn to think, argue, communicate, research, analyze, synthesize and gather a foundation.

    I have a general studies background–closest to a history major, but had classes all over the University. I am superglad that I didn’t choose vocational ed. My job didn’t exist when I went to school, but my schooling very much prepared me for my job.

    Good post, Nisha. Thanks.

  9. Very interesting post, and I think one of the main things to add is that a liberal arts education provides a huge advantage for students who are unsure of their passions and life goals before entering college. For instance, I had applied to various business schools in my senior year but at the last minute decided not to go because I was unsure whether I’d enjoy finance or business in general. I instead entered a liberal arts schools with the majors “economics and math” — and very soon I realized that I didn’t really want to do a math major. The huge advantage for me of a liberal arts education is that in my first year of school, I had the great opportunity to really experiment and take classes in various disciplines. This broad sampling of classes allowed me to explore Political Science, and since then I have absolutely loved Political Science. In high school I was considering Finance; now I have found a completely different passion in law and human rights, which I never would have been able to find had I gone to a business school. Having the chance to explore really allows you to find what you’re really passionate about in life.

    At the same time, I wouldn’t say that liberal arts majors are more passionate about what they do. For instance, I myself am not passionate about economics – though it is one of my two majors. I know many other economics majors who don’t really enjoy it, and I know students who have transferred OUT of liberal arts into schools they enjoy more. I have many friends who are pre-med and in “liberal arts majors” and don’t really enjoy it. At the same time, I know engineers who love what they do. And also, “liberal arts” is very general – do you include journalism schools, music schools, and so on? People in these fields have more specific curriculums but often tend to be passionate about what they do…

  10. Also, I just have to say that if someone’s passionate about getting a job in engineering, or software, or finance – then a degree in those disciplines definitely helps them more. Liberal arts majors are good for people interested in other types of jobs but I think a specific education can train you very well for specific careers.

  11. I am a total product of liberal arts. As an undergrad all my roommates were engineer or architect majors. I was the lone liberal arts. Of course they made fun of me and told me I would be unemployed most of my life. None of that really bothered me because I was doing what I liked, and that to me is way more important.

    So I went to grad school, like all liberal arts majors do, right? As it turns out, I make more money than all my old roommates, one of which is unemployed (engineer). Not to mention that I had the opportunity to work for Barack Obama when he was a senator, Paul Simon and many other semi-important people, so I think my liberal arts degree worked out very well.

    I currently work at a community college in Southern Illinois and things are great.

    Oh yeah, Go Dawgs!! Salukis all day long!!

  12. […]Education should harness your full potential as a human being. Relevant work experience and real-world skills can greatly enhance both the learning experience and your employability. But simply training to be one of a million highly-skilled drones sitting in a cubicle somewhere is not educating yourself.[…]

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