A Liberal Arts Education: An Exercise in Enlightenment or a Waste of Resources?

“What is the worth of a liberal arts education?” It’s one of those timeless questions; just below “why do bad things happen to good people,” but slightly above “whatever happened to Amelia Earhart (though perhaps that question is slowly being answered)?” In a period of economic downturn and the continued proliferation of technical and low-paying service sector work, supporters of the liberal arts have found it increasingly difficult to defend their field. Even those who benefitted from the highest riches of the liberals arts education fumble in attempts to answer critics. A historian at one of the nation’s prominent universities—speaking in 2006—told her students that the history major prepares students for careers that do not yet exist. Surely this was not comforting to her pupils, many of who were, statistically speaking, within half a decade of a very real job market!

So what is the worth of a liberal arts education? I write this post to provide yet another possible answer to this perplexing question; my answer comes in two parts. First, I shall explain why a liberal arts education is worth the financial and temporal expense for its own sake. Second, I shall explore whether or not there are any benefits beyond this. After reading, I expect that you will come to your own conclusions regarding both.

In May, I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science. In total, I spent three years at UNCG and one year, my freshman one, at a local community college. My interest in both subjects preceded my entrance into college. Indeed, I began my post-secondary education with a healthy—albeit strange—knowledge of American politics and history (I spent my junior year of high school obsessing over the 1996 senate election in Massachusetts). But college provided me with some things that I could not or would not obtain on my own.

College introduced me to diversity. I had attended a small, Christian school since I was in first grade. Jesus was king of kings; Ronald Reagan was politician of politicians. Growing up, liberals were foolish at best, evil at worse, and scarce either way. I didn’t meet a true left-winger in the flesh until after I had been given my high school diploma. College allowed me to meet and converse with people of different colors, backgrounds, sexualities, and ideologies. As the Bible says, iron sharpens iron, and college is a good place for conservatives and liberals alike to come together, spar, and gain a better understanding of their opponent’s ideas, but their ideas as well.

College forced me to think. I mean, really think. Just like my math teachers weren’t content with A + B = C, my humanities professors were not content with just my opinion. They wanted to know why and more importantly what sources could I use to back up my thoughts? Too often today we accept what we hear as the god-honest truth or refuse to argue with someone who seems to have an opinion set in stone. College defrocks many of our sacred cows—it did mine—and we have to decide once again why we believe what we do and if at the end of the day, our beliefs are really worth the admiration and attachment we provide them.

College adds complexity to our perspective. As one of my professors once said, historians dislike the words “absolute truth.” It’s not that such things don’t exist (see college didn’t make me too liberal), but college forced me to question whether or not the conclusion I used to come to so quickly was really all that legitimate. I also became more aware of social cleavages, because they do exist. For better or for worse (and I lean heavily toward the latter), people slice and dice themselves up into groups. Rich. Poor. Gay. Straight. White. Black. Republican. Democrat. How you identify yourself often determines the lens you wear in looking at people, issues, and themes. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a poor, straight, black woman (political correctness aside though, there are few things more moving that the gospel choir at a black church). Still, the hope is that with a liberal arts education, you could imagine what that would be like as an individual, but also how society would react to you and your ideas.

To sum it all up, college introduced me to new ideas, forced me to reevaluate and/or defend my own, and gave me the perspective to think beyond what I could see for myself. But how has this translated to the work force? Not as well as I’d like.
I intended to go right on to graduate school, but developments in my personal life led me to pause these plans. Instead, I decided to leave my friends and family behind and move in with a man I met on the internet (I’m still alive and we’re still happy together, thank you). During this gap year, I’ve had to fall back on my education and experiences.

As a college student, I worked in fast food, wrote for the school newspaper, edited a book on Greensboro, North Carolina, and interned at the university archive. Some may see these as valuable experiences for the job market; others may see them as fluff. In all reality, they were rather helpful. The writing experiences were particularly of use. They landed me my first job upon arriving in East Tennessee—at a real estate office—and helped me get other interviews. I interviewed for a local newspaper, got to meet the staff, and was even told by the editor-in-chief that I was a strong candidate for the job. He eventually informed me that, due to the economy, the company that owned the paper decided to forgo hiring anyone. Likewise, I was hired as an editor for a political advocacy group, but after losing more business, they had to rescind their offer.

The point of all this was that you can’t blame colleges for a lousy economy. My partner—he works in the medical field—accepted a job at a local hospital in 2002 after receiving signing bonuses and promises of future education funded by his employer. Over ten years later, people graduating in his field can’t get full time work let alone the goodies hoisted upon him during better times.
This is not to say that all degrees are created equally. If you are an English major, you are probably not going to make as much money as an engineering major. But for people like me, those who would rather write an essay on the history of suburban lawns than do electromagnetic (yes?) math problem sets, the humanities degree and the liberal arts focus just makes more sense personally and professionally. You can have a very financially rewarding career as a liberal arts graduates (millions have proven so), but don’t spend like a sailor (or worse an engineer graduate or law student); those Occupy Wall Streeters who are angry that they spent $100,000 on a queer studies degree have no one to blame but themselves. If you are a liberal arts student, enjoy the renaissance status your school is trying to give you, but think and spent wisely—not even medical students are promised the American Dream these days.

I will be applying to graduate schools in the fall. Maybe I will get in; maybe I won’t. Regardless of my future education, I never plan to stop reading, thinking, and discussing. The four years I spent seeking out my Bachelors of Arts degree changed my life forever; I wouldn’t give up the experience for the best job technical education could purchase. By spending wisely (college is an investment, people) and thinking creatively, even we history majors can find a lasting and fulfilling career in the twenty-first century economy. Now go out there and make me proud, liberal arters!

4 responses

  1. I think the strongest argument for a liberal arts education is that it really, really makes a person grow and see how different and unique the world really is. A liberal arts education makes it much harder believe any group or ideology or position is the “only” “right” one. It opens the mind. People are happier when they can understand and embrace diversity.

    I’m curious about the following comment: “…people slice and dice themselves up into group…”
    What exactly do you mean? With the exception of the super rich and political elite, I don’t think people do this to themselves but rather that society does it. A person born with brown/darker skin, for example, doesn’t actively racialize themselves as “black” – society does that. I certainly don’t consider myself “disabled,” but the university does, as does the law, as do people who see me wearing shorts (my leg brace shows then).

    And we’re still working on getting you to the liberal spectrum of things! ;)

  2. Very cool. My point of interest here would be the Occupy comment. While news cameras typically showed lots of Starbucks-drinking yuppie-esque folks, the message of the movement was relatively clear: what’s the deal with being proud of economic inequality, yo? A message I would think would resonate with far more folks than not. Great points about learning to defend a philosophical position. Having a disagreement, and being able to respect and work to understand someone’s perspective is a powerful message.

  3. I’d have to disagree, Andrew. It has been my experience that most–certainly not all–people identify themselves by their gender, race, sexuality, or other general factor. Of course you are right that society has always labeled people, but since the 1960s with the rise of social movements such as black power and gay libertation, group-think has become overwhelming. Looking back at recent politics. Michelle Obama gave a speech arguing that her husband–born to a white woman– was “black enough” for black people to consider him one of their own. Then there was Herman Cain. Many argued that Cain could not consider himself a black man or leader of black people because he “did not think like a black man.” Also, isn’t the message of Karl Marx that poor people allow themselves to be seen in particular groups rather than as a class of workers?

    As for the Occupy Movement, I was really making the point that we longer live in a time that you can just get any degree and expect to find the perfect job. Students must be more strategic, and while many liberal arts degrees still have a great deal of use, many, again particularly those that are geared towards one group or another, do not carry the same weight on the market.

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