The Complete Package: A Liberal Arts Education

College is more expensive than ever, and the decision on where to attend is a decision on how your money is being used. Many students choose to attend a large university, such as UC Davis. Others, actually a significant less, choose to attend small liberal arts colleges, such as Occidental. Victor E. Ferrall, in his book titled Liberal Arts at the Brink, explores many definitions of the “Liberal Arts”. In the first chapter, he uses Webster’s dictionary to define liberal arts as “fields of knowledge that are not practical” (8). However, later on in the chapter, Ferrall refers to a definition from Amherst College history professor, Hugh Hawkins, stating that Liberal Arts “develops interests and capabilities that will enrich both the individual learner and future communities” (13). These contrasting definitions both have their prevalence in today’s society, with many people justifying liberal arts’ practicality and others justifying its impracticality.

A liberal arts education develops students who are adequately equipped for the challenges outside of college. A liberal arts education allows students to develop skills that employers desire, such as critical thinking, analysis, and creativity. Jessica Kleiman, in her article for Forbes, uses anecdotal evidence to praise her liberal arts education she received at the University of Michigan. She claims that a liberal arts education served her well and strengthened her critical thinking and writing skills. With the help of a liberal arts education, she landed many internships at magazines and PR firms and is now an executive vice president of communications at a media company. As an actual example of a liberal arts education used well, Kleiman is a reliable source.  In Time Magazine, Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history at Harvard, argues that critics of the liberal arts are wrong. She uses an employer survey and described applications of the liberal arts to argue against its critics. The survey shows employers expressed a preference for an education that “has taught them to write well, think critically, and communicate easily”, which are all results of a liberal arts education. She believes that students “should be prepared not just for their first job but for their fourth and fifth jobs”. A liberal arts education prepares students to be flexible and they will have no issue transitioning to a new job or role. In his article in USA Today, Adam Lerner, a senior studying English at Cornell University, uses many statistics to show the decrease in popularity of a liberal arts education. He argues against Obama’s call in the State of the Union Address to “reward schools that create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)”. Lerner writes about a World Values Survey that ranked the United States as only 14th among 54 surveyed countries in arts participation. In a study conducted by the Conference Board, many surveyed CEOs believed that creativity is “increasingly important for new hires”. However, Lerner describes today’s education as a system that emphasizes computation skills over creative skills. A liberal arts education isn’t part of “today’s education”, it helps foster creative skills as well as many other skills that will be practical in the world outside of college.

Others argue that a liberal arts education is impractical and inferior to a vocational degree. Rob Reuteman, in his article in CNBC, synthesizes many well-qualified critics’ opinions to argue that a liberal arts education is impractical. He first quotes Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. In a time period where “we graduate more people from college than we have jobs for”, a liberal arts degree is becoming useless. Reuteman then quotes Betty Krump, who is an executive director of the American Technical Education Association. Krump believes that the choice between critical thinking and technical job-specific skills is becoming more obvious due to economic reality. Many families now choose a technical education, which according to Krump, is the “key to our future success”. Reuteman also quotes individuals who are involved in a liberal arts education themselves, whether they are teaching or studying it. For example, Frederick Starr, former 11-year president of Oberlin College, regrets that “top liberal arts programs are out of reach of more than a few good students”. In another article in Fox Business, author Steve Tobak uses statistics to exemplify the useless liberal arts degree. Tobak writes that median salaries of students who attended elite liberal arts colleges are far lower than those of students who graduated from equally selective universities. Tobak blames an education system that provides “no practical real-world guidance whatsoever” for the difficulty of landing a decent job.

As a student at a liberal arts college and with many friends attending large universities, I can see there is a large difference between the two. In many articles praising a liberal arts education, authors state that a liberal arts education allows students to have a more personal experience in the classroom. At a liberal arts college, such as Occidental, classes rarely exceed 30 people and have classes with as low as 7 people. A professor in an introductory mathematics course, a course anyone can take, will actually know everyone’s names and students actively asked and answered questions, but in an introductory mathematics course at a large university, you are in a large lecture hall with hundreds of other people the professor doesn’t personally know. With a liberal arts education, you are held accountable and professors care about how you are doing in the class. A liberal arts education allows students to explore a wide range of subjects, unlike a traditional university. Students, similar to me, who had no idea what they’re going to study will benefit from the broadness of a liberal arts education. You don’t have to declare a major right away and can use your first year to take a variety of classes to figure out what you want to study.

There are many people who will praise a liberal arts education and others who will look down on it. The development of critical thinking skills, personal relationships with professors, and a broad education, are some of the arguments in favor of a liberal arts education. As a first-year student at a liberal arts college, I believe the benefits have outweighed the consequences.

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