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Don’t Worry, Not Everyone Thinks Your Liberal Arts Degree Is Useless

Savannah L. Barker |
April 21, 2015 | 6:39 p.m. PDT

Theater Editor

Fareed Zakaria's newest book explores the argument in favor of a liberal arts education.
Fareed Zakaria's newest book explores the argument in favor of a liberal arts education.
...Or at least that’s the argument acclaimed journalist Fareed Zakaria makes in his new book “In Defense of a Liberal Education.”

In a time when there is a growing consensus that liberal arts degrees are not practical in the competitive job market, Fareed argues that the skills gained from a liberal arts education — such as the ability to think analytically, write eloquently, and communicate effectively — are significantly more valuable for long-term career aspirations. Fareed believes the over-emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and vocational study for the sake of a skills-based, linear career path can limit creativity, versatility, and most importantly, undermine the importance of learning for the sake of learning.

Many great American innovators and entrepreneurs understand the value of the liberal arts and the deeper goal behind getting an education, not just as a tool to get a job, but as an experience that ultimately breeds more well-rounded individuals. Mark Zuckerberg was a psychology major before dropping out of Harvard to create Facebook, which he claims is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.” Similarly, Apple’s former CEO Steve Jobs maintained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” If the leaders in the tech world are proclaiming the importance of the liberal arts in conjunction with technology — rather than in opposition to it — where is the dissent coming from and why?

Well, one of the main arguments against receiving a liberal arts education is that it is simply thought to be a luxury in today’s economy. Since 1978, the cost of a college education has increased by an astounding 1,120 percent. With financial stakes this high, it is no wonder parents and politicians are pushing college students to pursue “safer” options that they believe will ensure a solid return on their investment. Fareed notes that while a college education was “affordable to the a middle-class family in 1965,” this simply is not true today and likely accounts for the anxieties that surround majoring in the “wrong” subject. As a student at an expensive, private university myself, I can personally attest to the inevitable stress that comes when perusing academic interests which fall outside of what may be considered “practical.” 

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But even considering the ever-growing expense of a college degree, the larger argument about the value — or lack thereof —  of liberal arts majors comes down to a fundamental disagreement about the purpose of a college education. Some believe that colleges should be training grounds that prepare students for the workforce by providing skill sets specific to a particular job. Others argue that academic institutions exist for the purpose of developing intellectual curiosity and gaining a broader skill set that can be applied to a multitude of jobs. Yale’s Report of 1828 defends the latter position, stating “Our object is not to teach that which is peculiar to any one of the professions; but to lay the foundation which is common to them all.” Fareed Zakaria, who received his undergraduate education from Yale, echoes the mentality of his alma mater, maintaining throughout his book that it is much better to develop the skills a liberal education provides that can survive today’s ever-changing global economy.

Studies show that the skills gained from a liberal arts education have more value in the long-term.
Studies show that the skills gained from a liberal arts education have more value in the long-term.

Fareed closes his book with a surprising chapter about the millennial generation entitled “In Defense of Today’s Youth.” Described as “The Me Me Me Generation” by Time magazine in 2013, Fareed defends those of us born after 1980, claiming that it is unfair to dismiss us as “narcissistic,” “callow,” and “morally unserious.” Fareed cites UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), which has been collecting data on incoming freshmen since 1966, to help illustrate the things our generation have deemed important to our personal happiness. The data shows that students have become “more conscious of the need to make money,” but does wanting to be financially secure and successful really make us so bad? In addition to our want for financial success, students have also identified “becoming a community leader” and “helping others” as aspirations important to them, signs that we aren’t as painfully selfish as one may think.

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With regard to how liberal arts majors perform in the workforce, and whether or not the skills they gain are considered valuable, recent studies have shown that liberal arts majors actually do a lot better in their careers than previously thought. Last year, the Association of American Colleges & Universities released a report that revealed the long-term earnings and employment rates of liberal arts graduates. The study found that liberal arts majors actually make more on average than  STEM majors later in their careers. The study also found that 93 percent of employers said that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major,” all skills emphasized and enhanced in a liberal arts education. 

So as we fast approach our graduation date this May and embark on our somewhat terrifying journey out into the “real world,” I hope that my fellow liberal arts majors will find solace in knowing that not everyone thinks our degrees are useless. When intellectual powerhouse and New York Times bestseller Fareed Zakaria dedicates an entire book in defense of our educational choices, and studies show that employers are far more interested in our worldliness and innovative fervor than our college major, it isn’t hard to face our critics with the confidence that our art history or philosophy degree may just be more beneficial than anyone thought.

Contact Theater Editor Savannah L. Barker here.



 

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