The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Much has been written over the last few years about the value of a liberal arts education and whether or not such an education is “worth it.”  In a difficult economic environment, so the argument goes, students cannot afford the “luxury” of a major in something as impractical as English or Philosophy.  Instead, they should stick to those areas of study, such as accounting or finance, that will lead directly to a well-defined and high-paying vocation upon graduation.  This argument has gained traction in the mainstream media. The New York Times, for instance, ran a front-page story in May 2012 (perhaps not coincidentally right around the time of graduation weekend) that featured the story of a graduate of Ohio Northern University who was heading off into the “real world” with $120,000 in student debt.   Even President Obama has weighed in with a recent proposal to rate colleges on their effectiveness and link those ratings to federal financial aid.  One of the factors that will figure into the ratings scheme is the earnings of graduates.  But as William Holder, the editor of Wesleyan University’s alumni magazine points out, “[s]urely we want institutions such as Wesleyan to graduate investment bankers and social workers.”

Many would argue that the focus should be less on the employability and starting salaries of 22-year-old graduates and more on the life-long skills and values that a liberal arts education instills.  This was exactly the message delivered by Richard H. Brodhead, the president of Duke University, in an address to the College Board.  Brodhead argues that attempts to quantify the value of any college education in ways similar to those proposed by the Obama administration and the state of Virginia are effective “provided you assume the benefit equals the salary paid by your first employer.”  But is that all that a good education consists of?  While acknowledging that there are many versions of higher education, some of which do indeed focus on the acquisition of work-place skills, Brodhead points out education, and liberal arts education in particular, is so much more.

“Liberal arts education is not just a matter of requiring students to visit random unrelated fields and check the curricular boxes. Beyond its formal requirements, this education aims to engage multiple forms of intelligence to create deep and enduring habits of mind, an active, integrative, versatile spirit that’s naturally disposed, when it comes upon a new fact or situation, to use existing knowledge to try to grasp it, while updating preexisting understandings in this new light.

The value of this habit of mind is not measured by income alone. It is, in the fullest sense, equipment for living. Its value is that it supplies enrichment to personal lives, equips students to be thoughtful and constructive social contributors, and prepares them to participate fully and creatively in the dynamic, ever-changing world that awaits them after college.”

 Address to the College Board by Richard H. Brodhead, President of Duke University (Source:  The College Board YouTube Channel)

Wesleyan University President Michael Roth delivered a similar message at the United Nations Foundation’s 2013 Social Good Summit.  Roth defines a liberal education “as an education that leads you to ask more questions,  to ask questions that lead you to change how you behave in the world and that results in life-long learning.”

It is the type of educational that both Presidents Brodhead and Roth describe that leads liberal arts graduates to success in whatever field they decide to pursue after graduation.  In an ever-changing world, a world in which many of today’s jobs did not even exist a decade ago, those predisposed to success are able to view the big picture, to clearly share their thoughts and ideas with those around them, to consider the diverse opinions of those who view things from a different perspective.  They are those who can think critically, analyze problems, and communicate effectively.  And those are precisely the skills one acquires through a broad liberal arts education.

Postscript

The day after I wrote this post, the Wall Street Journal ran an article under the headline “Why Focusing Too Narrowly in College Could Backfire.”  The article’s author, Peter Capelli, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, opens by pointing out that for many students (and their parents), the most obvious path in a rough economy “is obvious: be practical.”  He further states that “[t]he public and private sectors are urging kids to abandon the liberal arts, and study fields where the job market is hot right now.”

Capelli goes on to write

It all makes sense.  Except for one thing:  It probably won’t work.  The trouble is that nobody can predict where the jobs will be — not the employers, not the school, not the government officials who are making such loud calls for vocational training.  The economy is simply too fickle to guess way ahead of time, and any number of changes could roil things as well.  Choosing the wrong path could make things worse, not better.

While for some specialized education makes sense (if you want to be a chemical engineer, then the only way into that career is with a degree in the field, for instance), for many the best route may be to acquire diverse skills that are transferable across careers and prepare students for the kinds of jobs that don’t even exist today.  

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