A Dean’s Perspective: Why We Need the Liberal Arts

Today I’m sharing a piece written by Scott Coltrane, the dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon, on the beauty and practicality of a liberal arts degree. The popularity of liberal arts degrees is clearly declining. According to a thought-provoking article I read this month in The New Yorker, only 40% of college students graduate with a liberal arts degree.
With critics questions questioning the wisdom of majoring in a liberal art, I wanted to share the perspective of a dean and sociologist who can eloquently argue why that position is foolish.

Why We Need the Liberal Arts

Our students are coming of age in an era of unprecedented change and transformation. Consider these metrics from the U.S. Department of Labor:

  • Every year, more than 30 million Americans are working in jobs that did not exist in the previous quarter.
  • Every year, more than 1/3 of the entire U.S. labor force changes jobs.
  • Today’s students will have 10-14 jobs by the time they are 38.
  • Fifty percent of workers have been with their company less than five years.

What do these statistics imply for an institution of higher learning? As former Secretary of Education Richard Riley has so aptly put it, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.”
We must therefore ask ourselves how well the liberal arts education that we provide in the College of Arts and Sciences prepares students for a world of uncertainty as well as opportunity.

Why Employers Like Liberal Arts Majors

Liberal arts education is often contrasted with business or technical education, and the contrast is often stereotyped as impractical versus practical. But out in the “real world,” business leaders say they are looking for the exact attributes that liberal education provides.
In a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, nearly 75 percent of employers said they want higher education to place more emphasis on liberal arts fundamentals such as critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and communications skills, along with an understanding of global issues.
It is our belief — and this is reflected by remarks from some of the biggest names in industry — that as the pace of technological and cultural change continues to accelerate, intellectual flexibility and resourcefulness will only increase in value.
Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel Corp., indicates the necessity of liberal arts skills when he declares, “Our whole product line turns over every year. About 80 to 90 percent of the revenue we have in December of each year comes from products that weren’t there in January.” The underlying message is: without an understanding of the big picture and higher-order problem-solving skills, how can a future Intel employee be prepared for this ever-changing reality?

Apple and Steve Jobs

Here’s another, more explicit example: When Steve Jobs introduced the latest iPhone last June, he made a statement that points straight to the value of the liberal arts in the 21st century. “We’re not just a tech company, even though we invent some of the highest technology products in the industry,” said Jobs. “It’s the marriage of that plus the humanities or the liberal arts that distinguishes Apple.”
We would agree with Jobs that entrepreneurial, innovative thinking is exactly the kind fostered by a liberal arts education — one that emphasizes not only the mastery of specific subject matter but also the ability to synthesize ideas, analyze alternatives and effectively express and support a line of reasoning.
And this applies to not only high-tech companies or their future workers and leaders, but across the board, in every profession, across the globe.

Liberal Arts and Higher Earnings

A recent study from the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce shows that a liberal arts education is associated with higher earnings. Not only do college graduates earn more than non-college graduates, but the highest salaries are associated with positions that call for intensive use of liberal education capabilities, including writing, mathematics, inductive and deductive reasoning, problem solving, social skills, and originality.
In sum, in the rapidly shifting job markets of the future, those most likely to succeed will be those who have learned how to learn, have a strong multidisciplinary education and have the skills and experience to adapt to changing conditions.

Read More:

5 Hardest and Easiest College Majors by GPA’s
Grade Inflation: Colleges With the Easiest and Hardest Grades
Engineering Degrees: How Tough Is It To Get One
8 Reasons Not to Get a Business Degree

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  1. I completely agree with this article (in spite of being an underemployed liberal arts graduate)! My BA degree was a joy to pursue and honed my skills in communication, critical thinking and social perspectives. Subsequently, I opted to go to graduate school for business after tacking on a minor in business at the end of of undergraduate career. The ironic thing is that I personally feel that my liberal arts education has made me a more competant future employee. Yet would-be employeers like to dwell on my business studies. In my opinion and experience, all of the technical and business acumen in the world can only take you so far. The real corporate superstars are those who can visonize…and then communicate that vision to others.

  2. My husband and I debate this issue frequently. He’s an engineering major, and I majored in History. I do believe in the great value of a liberal arts education, but…It’s getting harder to ignore articles like Bloomberg/Business Week’s “A Graduation Gift for College Seniors: Jobs” or UC San Diego Extension’s report “Hot Careers for College Graduates 2011,” both of which highlight healthcare and technology fields as the ones with the greatest potential. With today’s economy and the ominous predictions regarding the country’s debt to GDP ratio, I think it’s irresponsible parenting on my part not to encourage my rising high school senior to consider more technical fields. That’s where the jobs are. While Mr. Coltrane’s article makes some important points, it still leaves me wondering how a new grad with a major in English will get a foot in the door at Intel or a bio-tech company.

    1. Hi Theresa,
      Thanks so much for your comments. While I understand your desire for your son to graduate with a good job, nudging kids to major in things that they aren’t interested in or don’t have an aptitude isn’t the answer. If you look at the hottest majors they all require math and nearly all of the top 10 are engineering degrees. Most kids are not going to be engineers like your husband or my dad.
      My daughter was a Spanish major, who graduated last month from college. She is working at as the social media guru for an educational toy company in San Diego and she absolutely loves her job. She didn’t need to major in a technical field to get it, but what she did do is spend a lot of time in social media pursuits while she was in college. It’s not just the major that counts, but what you do when you aren’t in class.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy