The value of liberal arts education can not be determined by solely finding a definition for it. The value of a liberal arts education, or any type of education for that matter, should not be constrained by an explicit definition but rather the real world implications and applications it contributes. The contemporary debate over the value and utility of a liberal arts education quite often boils down to a matter of practicality and job application. In my opinion, this is a disservice to higher education all together. I argue that the real value of a liberal arts education is in the larger picture, the way in which the liberal arts help people grow into better citizens of the world.
One of the main critics of the liberal arts is that it does not properly prepare its students for the work force. Undergraduates seeking a degree in a STEM field are compared to those seeking a liberal arts degree. STEM majors are applauded for choosing practicality. “Nearly 50% of job seekers said they believe there are “no jobs” out there for those with a liberal arts degree, according to a survey of 2,978 job seekers carried out by management and consulting firm Millennium Branding and Beyond.com, an online jobs network” (Fotrell 2014). There seems to be general consensus to deem liberal arts unpractical. The key word in this statistic is “believe”. Fifty percent of job seekers in this survey may “believe” that there are no jobs those with a liberal arts degree, but that does not necessarily mean that this statement is accurate. At some point there has to be a separation between what is believed of the liberal arts and actuality. Assessing the value of the liberal arts in its job application is quite a narrow perspective. The value of education should be determined on its larger contributions such as social justice movements rather than expanding the workforce. In his editorial, Thielman quotes Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield, “Science students do well in non-science courses, but non-science students have difficulty in science courses. Slaves of exactness find it easier to adjust to the inexact, though they may be disdainful of it, than those who think in the realm of the inexact when confronted with the exact” (Thielman 2013). Then adds that “perhaps envy subtly contributes to liberal arts defensiveness against STEM” (Thielman 2013). Although this argument may be based on some factual data the warrant in both Thielman and Mansfield discredits their argument to some extent. Using the term “disdainful” to describe STEM students taking on non-science courses, makes the assumption that science students do not enjoy nor appreciate the liberal arts. Assuming the values and sentiments of STEM students undermines the statistical data he may present. Thielman’s additional commentary further impairs the argument he presents by claiming that liberal art students “envy” STEM students. This language weakens his contribution because it almost makes it a personal attack rather than an objective critique of the liberal arts.
The essence of liberal arts lies in the implications and real world applications of a the wholesome education it provides students. The liberal arts may not teach vocational skills but it does instill wholesome qualities in its students. “The liberal arts respondents consistently indicated a higher desire to ‘learn for learning’s sake,’ ‘to make the world a better place’ and ‘to volunteer immediately after graduation.’ I am proud to note that in this survey, Grinnell students were among the country’s most socially minded, rating social justice issues two to four times more important than the national average” (Kington 2011). The liberal arts does more than prepare students for a work force it prepares students to be world citizens. The use of a survey presents empirical data supporting the notion that the liberal arts contributes to a growing population of socially conscious graduates. When evaluating the value of the liberal arts it is important to stop thinking of education as a commodity. There should not be a use or exchange value placed on education. The ultimate goal of higher education should be to create progress. Data that proves that a liberal education creates socially conscious people demonstrates its value. I do believe, however, that when evaluating the worth of a liberal arts one can not degrade STEM fields. A Congressional report in 2013 made it clear that “both areas are critical to producing citizens who can participate effectively in our democratic society, become innovative leaders and benefit from the spiritual enrichment that the contemplation of ethics, morals, aesthetics and the great ideas over time can provide” (Gordon-Reed 2013). This emphasizes the importance of valuing any and all higher education: one can not deem a type of education useless. This Congressional report proposes the idea that both liberal arts and STEM fields deserve to be valued equally. Is it possible to combine STEM and arts? This is exactly the question that Anne Jolly attempts to answer in her editorial where she quotes Ruth Catchen, “views art as a way of offering more diverse learning opportunities and greater access to STEM for all types of learners” (Jolly 2014). This editorial is unique in that she clarifies the argument of both parties. Before introducing an argument of her own, she defines the argument of those against incorporating the arts in STEM and those who approve of such a tactic. Catchen’s remark emphasizes that incorporating art in STEM and developing STEAM programs instead would provide students with a more holistic education from which they could benefit greatly.
In conclusion, when critiquing the value of liberal arts in the contemporary age one can not simplify the argument to whether or not a liberal arts education offers more job opportunities to its graduates. The important factor of evaluating a liberal arts education is its implications in the context of citizenship and leadership, such as social justice.