Liberal Arts Majors Need Not Apply: The Declining Value of Liberal Arts Education in the Twenty-First Century

Monday, August 1, 2011

Lord Henry Brougham, lawyer, statesman, and founder of the Edinburgh Review, once said, “Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.” Men like Lord Brougham were fortunate to have been born into the upper echelons of a society in which education was considered the regular step before assuming one’s rightful place within an elite circle of leaders.

Two hundred years later, largely after the democratization of education in the 1960s, education has become widely available to nearly every class of man and woman in the United States. This new group of college students did not need a fancy education in the classical arts and sciences however, but a solid grounding in employable skills.  Engineering degrees began to replace mathematics degrees, communications overtook literature, and business programs trumped economics. Today, American colleges and universities grapple with a society transformed and an educational system trying to keep pace.

In his book Liberal Arts at the Brink, former Beloit College president Victor E. Ferrall Jr. defends the importance of liberal arts programs and, specifically, the small four-year liberal arts colleges whose sole focus remains providing a broad, classical undergraduate education. Unlike their public university counterparts, these schools are resistant to pressures to become vast research institutions or vocational training grounds. Their mission is to produce graduates who are “seldom satisfied with their level of knowing,” who bring “wonder...and analytical resources and knowledge to bear to their daily experience,” and who have an “intellectually entrepreneurial spirit.” Not unlike Lord Brougham’s definition of an educated person.

In theory, I doubt many would argue with the importance of such an individual’s potential to contribute to society. However, in practice, today’s youth are rejecting the opportunity to explore the breadth of their imaginations and are instead using college as a place to pad their resumes. Careerism, or the strategy to get “the highest-paying job available and then use the income to support the life they want to lead,” has led many students to misuse their unique potential and instead chase the proverbial golden goose. Personally, I see this as a possible underlying cause for the number of mid-life transitions and mid-life crises that plague our society.

The shift from classical instruction to vocational training has hurt colleges like Oberlin, Swarthmore, and Amherst.  According to Ferrall, “By the end of the twentieth century the percentage of college students attending liberal arts colleges and universities had fallen below 5 percent.” But unless we work for those schools, why should we care?

Ferrall states—and I agree—that we should care because “the more liberally educated citizens [a society] has, the stronger it will be.” We are in a dangerous place. According to Ferrall, “Greater exposure to the world, made possible by the proliferation of Internet and video sources, has had the paradoxical effect of, if not closing minds, at least limiting curiosity.” When we lose curiosity we also lose innovation, compassion, diplomacy, and, most importantly, a basic understanding of the human condition. Maybe I have just watched Dead Poets Society too many times, but I think higher education should actually aspire to something higher. It should impart understanding and tolerance, be a forum for self-discovery, and connect students to the philosophies and mysteries of the larger world; it should generate curiosity and a desire for lifelong learning; it should be a journey through the human experience rather than a shortcut to a career path. It should be, in other words, a liberal arts education.

As Ferrall discusses a little too briefly in his book, job training, or vocational education, is the primary focus for today’s eighteen million college students. Careerism is a major driving force behind the declining demand for the liberal arts.  While I concede that this decline is in large part due to a desire for the good life on the part of students, declining demand can also be contributed to a problem with supply—job supply.

The trend has long been that if someone pursues a degree in liberal studies or, say, literature or biology, that student is preparing for graduate school. However, not every undergraduate can or wants to continue on to graduate school, and those who do are confronting a changing landscape of tenured positions in academia. As William Deresiewicz wrote in The Nation, the university tenure system, a natural fit for former liberal arts graduates, has been undergoing a discouraging transformation to the adjunct system, jeopardizing professors’ ability to provide for themselves.  

Every employer wants job seekers with deep vertical experience. Even entry-level positions require specific qualifications. Businesses want an MBA. Marketers want marketing or advertising majors. Newspapers want journalism graduates. Even two-bit online content providers want journalism graduates. They all want data geeks—analysts and optimizers. They are all demanding specialization early in one’s career, and inevitably the market must respond. Regular Joes like you or me who still need to put bread on the table are faced with submitting to what employers want in order to compete. Institutions know that if a jobseeker does not want to play by the rules there is someone else who absolutely will.

Specializing our workforce and, in turn, our educational system, will not benefit us in the end. It is unnatural for humans to limit personal growth, to thwart their own creative instincts, to focus on just one path in life. Sure, it’s more efficient to tailor our precious intellectual resources to fit the needs of an ever-growing complex system. It’s also more efficient to shave your head rather than shampoo, condition, comb, and style your hair every day.  Should we all shave our heads?

I am alarmed by the sacrifices we seem to be making at the altar of efficiency. I think our policymakers, CEOs, educators, and other various leaders need to be big-picture types, well-versed in the many languages of today’s citizenry—technological and artistic, literal and figurative, historical and futuristic. The best training for these roles, and even for members of the plebeian masses like me, is a broad education. The liberal arts should not be viewed as a luxury for the rich and the intellectual, but instead should be the common denominator between all members of society.