In Defense of the Liberal Arts Degree

Remnants from my college days.

Remnants from my college days.

During a recent conversation in which debate wouldn't have been appropriate, a mother of a son late in his high school years announced that she had told him she wouldn't pay for college unless he knew with certainty what he planned for a major, and that the major had to be "practical."

Sadly, I knew that when she said "practical," she wasn't talking about a degree from a liberal arts institution and a major in, say, economics or history or literature.

I went to a liberal arts undergraduate institution (Johns Hopkins University) and a liberal arts graduate school (University of Chicago—although liberal-arts-ness matters less for graduate students). And I value my liberal arts education immensely. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

By the middle of my first semester at college, the world had opened like a vista. I was mind-blown. Suddenly, I saw the connection between all the subjects I'd been studying for years. History, philosophy, literature, sociology, psychology, biology, chemistry, mathematics—they were all entwined, each influencing the other. Truly, they couldn't be separated. It seems obvious now, but until then, it wasn't. My precollege teachers undoubtedly did their best, but none showed me that, for example, history influenced the books that were written, the scientific studies that were done, the dominant philosophical thinking.

The possibilities were endless.

And, when I think about it now, I realize that seeing the vastness and the complexity of the past and the present would have been daunting without the guidance of a liberal arts education. I learned how to think through issues, topics, questions, and arguments—from multiple angles and via multiple viewpoints. I learned how to approach a problem, research it thoroughly, develop my stance, and present my position in writing and verbally, through small-class seminars that graded students on interaction and intellectual debate.

Aside: Writing this, I'm nostalgic for those days. Where did that level of inquiry and debate go? Why would it have been unacceptable to debate that mother's position on her son’s education? Seems like these days, conversations don't just start with talk about the weather—they end there, too.

As an employer, the ability for a team member to approach a problem, assess it, and make a decision or a recommendation that she can back up with research is huge. I don't expect entry-level employees to have many practical skills, even if they've had internships. Internships don’t put people in the corporate trenches. And that's okay. If a job candidate or new employee has been taught how to think and communicate effectively, it's a huge leg up.

I'm not alone in thinking this way:

  • An early 2012 study by Millennial Branding and Experience reported on by found that 30 percent of employers are seeking liberal arts majors, which was just under the percentage seeking engineering and computer/information systems students. Dan Schwabel, the founder of Millennial Branding and Experience, said that employers are seeking soft skills that take time to develop over hard skills that can be learned on the job, and that liberal arts majors are better communicators.

  • A January 2012 report from FOXBusiness said that liberal arts degrees are more versatile and serve students better over the long term, as the practical skills learned in more technical majors are often outdated in ten years.

  • NPR did a story in January 2012 that interviewed employers at large corporations, including ConAgra, stating that liberal arts degrees are just as valued at some companies as more "specialized" majors. ConAgra's CIO, Gerrit Schutte, said, "We look for them [prospective new hires] to have more than a single dimension in terms of what they bring to the table. Just technical talent is not enough."

  • A PBS report in October 2011 reviewed the debate over how government should invest in education. While stating that it would be wise for more Americans to become more familiar with the sciences, the report points out that technology is fundamentally changing our world, gradually replacing technical skills with computers and robotics. What remains? The need for broad, systematic thinking "capable of absorbing the bounties of knowledge that arise from new wellsprings of discovery in fields like genetics, artificial intelligence, and robotics."

Some of my best team members over the years have been history, psychology, sociology, and English majors. As long as they get their degree from a liberal arts institution, their specific major matters less. I cannot imagine they would be better at their entry-level jobs with degrees in business or communications. (And yes, these hires were for my marketing strategy consulting firm, FrogDog. So you might think I'd be preferential to those comms degrees. Nope.) I think these team members' collegiate exploration of topics of interest to them brings only greater enthusiasm to bear on their corporate careers. They come from a different angle. They have a broader, more global perspective. They see the bigger picture.

And come to think of it, very, very few of the people I've talked to in business over the years are doing what they set out to do in college, career-wise. (Including me.) They had a journey that they couldn't have anticipated. They love what they're doing now, but it isn't what they thought they'd be doing at age eighteen. So why so tightly restrict a kid's college major? Let him explore. Think. Inquire. Debate. And then bring all that to the corporate table. We'll be richer for it.