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Chin Up, Liberal Arts Students: History's On Your Side

Death of Socrates
by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

The dreaded question for all those majoring in philosophy, art history, or English literature: “So … what can you do with that?”

The 21st century—an age when proficiency in science, engineering and technology reign supreme in job applications—is slowly witnessing a dying breed: the liberal arts student. In 1996, 14 percent of U.S. graduates majored in one of the liberal arts; in 2010 that number was cut in half. And while nearly half of Stanford’s faculty teaches subjects in the humanities, fewer than 20 percent of applicants are interested in those courses.

On the surface, there seems to be little measurable reward in these subjects, especially when colleges are willing to lower tuitions for students interested in pursuing “job-friendly” majors. Semesters spent poring over Walt Whitman’s writings may seem self-indulgent next to courses teaching technical skills for white-collar professions. And the defense that these subjects teach critical thinking and creativity, while true, falls flat when the same could be said of, say, engineering. Perhaps there’s comfort in knowing Socrates went through similar scrutiny, as Callicles once told him in Gorgias, “It’s not shameful to practice philosophy while you’re a boy, but when you still do it after you’ve grown older and become a man, the thing gets to be ridiculous, Socrates!”

But there’s a fault in believing that a specific major means a specific job, primarily when we live in a time where job descriptions are constantly evolving: Being a journalist now, for example, requires entirely different skills than it did 15 years ago. An English professor at Roanoke College, Paul Hanstedt wrote, “It’s surprising how much we oversimplify the conversations we have about education and how it should work, reducing everything to a simple X=X formula: if I study accounting, I will be an accountant. If I study biology, I will be a biologist … As a result of this simplification, we make some pretty peculiar decisions.” Forbes makes a similar argument, saying that if students enter college with a narrow focus on fields that currently have the most opportunities, every other type of job could end up having too few candidates as the job market improves and other traits become necessary. Furthermore, skills directly applicable to a position shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all of a candidate’s profile: “We, as a culture of competition, are so hyper-focused on career success that we lose sight of all the other things that make a person interesting, well-rounded and, ultimately, a good hire.”

Numbers tend to favor the “interesting” hire. A study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 74 percent of employers would recommend a liberal education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy. And nearly all of employers surveyed (93 percent) say that the ability to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major.

In defense of a liberal arts education, Time columnist Joel Stein wrote, “We live in a time when smart people want to discuss only politics, technology and economics—a time when we believe that all progress is technological. But lots of history’s greatest leaps came from humanities: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, civil rights, getting girls to go wild.” The sciences, he noted, have not provided a pope or president.

We mustn’t leave the humanities to history. While it’s tempting to imagine that the future will be one scientific breakthrough after another, we must hold the same level of anticipation for creative progress. Stein aptly concludes in his column:

This great moment for technology is only a moment. Just as the transportation revolution ended 50 years ago, when planes stopped going any faster, the information revolution will sputter as well. But the revolutionary ideas that will once again change everything will come from our humanities departments. Though I have no idea who will give them money in the meantime.

Here’s an iconic defense of romantic pursuits, from the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society:

Image by Rodney, licensed under Creative Commons