The Liberal Arts Don’t Require an Apology

By Jon McGee

I studied political science and history in college. One of my brothers studied English. Another studied art history. The current conversation about degrees earned in liberal arts fields suggests that while we may be well-educated, maybe even interesting people, we also must be mostly unemployable in a contemporary economy. Social commentators today are quick to suggest that the future belongs to those with highly specialized skills and knowledge. A recent Star Tribune editorial applauding the rapprochement of MnSCU leadership and faculty asserted that “employers…need workers with technical and professional competencies as well as the ‘soft skills’ that liberal arts study imparts.”

 

We do students a grave disservice when we relegate the liberal arts, typically code for study in the humanities and social sciences, to afterthought. The idea that college ought to focus on the development of specialized and technical skills, and that the skills imparted by study of the liberal arts are just “soft skills” is simply wrong.

The liberal arts often are described as the opposite of a “practically oriented” education. The sentiment typically is expressed through the question, “What can you do with that degree?” Art history, political science, English. Dead ends, all. Only my own experience suggests that nothing could be further from the truth.

 

The best definition of the value of a liberal arts experience I have ever come across came from MnSCU Chancellor, Steve Rosenstone, when he was dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. In a 2001 essay entitled The Idea of a University, he described a liberal education as one that enables students to think critically and creatively, provides them with an understanding of the core ideas that shape the world in which they live, empowers them to see the connections among seemingly disparate things, and equips them to be lifelong learners. He got it right.

 

The ability to think critically and creatively, to solve complex problems, to transcend the boundaries of your own culture or experience are not soft skills, but rather imperatives for participation and leadership in a modern and rapidly changing world. The skills developed and honed by a liberal arts education are not transient but transferable and durable across a lifetime. They never become obsolete, unlike specialized knowledge and skills, all of which have an expiration date, sometimes sooner rather than later.

 

The liberal arts education my brothers and I received did not provide us with the particular technical expertise or knowledge required for any of the jobs we have had over many career years. However, it did provide each of us with the critical skills necessary to succeed in all of them.

 

A recent survey of our young graduates at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University confirms the contemporary value of the skills imparted by a liberal arts education. The overwhelming majority indicated that their education prepared them well for their careers and, as importantly, that their liberal arts education contributed significantly to their professional and personal development. They described themselves as very well prepared for the skills employers value most: the ability to perform their work ethically and with integrity, taking initiative, thinking critically about complex issues, and the ability to function effectively in a changing environment.

 

College cannot simply prepare graduates for specialized occupations and professions that already exist. That’s not enough. It ought to provide them with the skills to successfully navigate an economic landscape that will change frequently over the 45 year arc of their working career.

 

So, what can a liberal arts education prepare someone to do? As it turns out, lots of things. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, bestselling author J.K. Rowling, movie producer Steven Spielberg, Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield, and former Hewlitt-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina all earned undergraduate degrees in traditional liberal arts disciplines. It also prepares people for less famous but critically important roles, like school teachers, local business leaders, and legislators. Are the liberal arts a dead end? Not in today’s economy.

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