The Liberal Arts Fight

While once the pinnacle of higher education, liberal arts colleges now represent only a small fraction of the total number of colleges, with liberal arts students representing less than two percent of all postsecondary students. Many questions have arisen from such a drastic fall, ranging from those that question the value of a liberal arts education to those that question why the fall happened in the first place. The pros and cons of the liberal arts education both carry weight, yet in an era where so much emphasis is placed on more technical and specific majors, liberal arts majors may still lead the pack. While the technology boom has led to many job opportunities for STEM and other technical majors, a liberal arts major remains highly valued and sought after in the job market for the unique skills they provide.

Critics of the liberal arts education highly stress the inability of liberal arts majors to land a stable, salaried job post-graduation. The lack of a specific skill sellable to potential employers, as one may gain at a trade school like welding, has placed liberal arts majors in a deep rut. The technology boom that has propelled the market over the course of the last couple decades has provided numerous opportunities to those with technical skills in terms of jobs and job growth, yet liberal arts majors appear left out. Majors in the liberal arts, those in philosophy, English, gender studies, and medieval arts, will be hard pressed to find a job in such an environment. A study shows that “only 2% of companies are actively recruiting [liberal arts] graduates versus 27% for engineering and computer information systems and 18% for business graduates” (Fottrell). With so few schools hiring the liberal arts educated, hard questions are raised. When asked, “how a 22-year-old with no job, no income, no health insurance, and, in some cases, six figures of college debt to pay off is supposed to be a citizen of the world” (Brooks), a University of Virginia liberal arts dean had no comment. Critics of the liberal arts education, however, do have to fight to find the necessary evidence to support their argument. The liberal arts education, while no longer the most popular education by a long shot, still provides its students with an education not only that employers are yearning for that, but that will carry them further in life.

While the hot job in today’s market does lie in technology, what liberal arts critics try to hide is that tech companies find liberal arts majors to be some of their most desired workers. Technology startups have become some of the nation’s fastest growing businesses. One such startup is Slack Technologies, which in just under two years achieved a value of $2.8 billion with over 1.1 million users. While actively searching for STEM majors to refine its technology, Slack and its CEO Stewart Butterfield, who he himself graduated with a liberal arts degree, actively search for liberal arts majors. Slackbot, one of their standout features, is run by a theatre major. As Mr. Butterfield puts it, “such creativity can’t be programmed” (Anders). Creativity being one of the key aspects developed throughout a liberal arts education. While the liberal arts major may not have a specific technical skill to offer, they do bring some of the most important qualities in new hires to the table. A survey found that “84% of business leaders believe the ability to think creatively is just as important as the ability to think critically” and that “six in ten of these business leaders [believe] that ‘softer’ broadly applicable skills such as oral and written communications and problem solving skills are most important for college graduates to possess” (Ebersole). These skills allow liberal arts majors to, within 10 to 20 years, “outpace their counterparts in terms of income” (Driscoll). Although STEM majors may start their careers with a higher starting salary, they tend to plateau whereas the liberal arts major, with their wide array of versatile skills, are able to continue climbing higher and higher.  

Personally, as a student attending a liberal arts college, and having attended a very similar-minded high school, the more positive outlook on the liberal arts seems more realistic. My time spent reading and writing about theorists from Machiavelli to Lenin to Kant do not leave me woefully unprepared for the future, but instead wholeheartedly prepared. Critical thinking, problem-solving, writing and reading are not skills that will go underutilized. If anything, as noted above, these skills make me a more well-rounded, adaptable, reliable hire. The chances of the liberal arts major floundering in the workspace are minimal as adaptability and versatility are our strengths. Where the STEM major may falter when encountering a new subject area, the liberal arts major greets it with open arms and sees it as a challenge rather than a roadblock.   

The debate over the worth of the liberal arts education has gained staunch supporters on both sides. While critics to the liberal arts education, those that lean in the direction of STEM, are able to point to a booming technology-oriented market, those in favor of a liberal arts education receive the support of the CEOs in charge of that very same market. Furthermore, the success of those with liberal arts degrees in relation to their STEM counterparts proves that while the technology boom has led to many job opportunities for STEM and other technical majors, a liberal arts major remains highly valued and sought after in the job market for the unique skills they provide.

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