In an economic downturn, the instinct is to turn towards “practical” courses that provide a student with a certain skill set. I would argue the opposite: we now, more than ever, require sophisticated thinkers for complex problems. Many of our current jobs didn’t even exist 20 years ago, so the “answers” have changed. The grad who can make connections, who can come up with the “questions” and creative solutions, will be sought out. A liberal arts education teaches you how to think.
Companies want grads with good written and oral communication skills, employees that are creative problem solvers, and that have adaptable/transferable skills. Engineering schools are increasingly including more liberal arts courses in their curricula. Medical schools want to see students who are broadly educated, not just with a plethora of math and science courses. As long as you have the basic science prereqs, you can even major in music!
A good liberal arts education includes a strong core of courses that help students develop transferable skills:
1. Excellent communication skills: Liberal arts students routinely present, write and research. Not only are these students able to think innovatively and see the “big picture”, but they are able to communicate those ideas to others as well.
2. Liberal arts majors are not limited by specialization: While many pre‐professional majors are trained to work in a focused area of study, liberal arts majors can adapt to new situations and respond quickly to current trends.
3. Liberal arts majors have a global perspective: Liberal arts students are required to consider multiple perspectives. Many have studied abroad, and most liberal arts programs require foreign language study.
4. Liberal arts majors have a love for the questions as much as the answers: They acquire the ability to gather resources, perform research and learn new materials independently. Tackling the unfamiliar is a well-honed talent for a liberal arts student.
Admittedly, majoring in the arts or literature, philosophy or physics, or any other number of liberal arts subjects might seem impractical. “What are you doing to do with a major in…?” A liberal arts education is actually highly utilitarian. Study after study has shown that liberal arts grads often make better employees, excelling in almost every category: leadership, communication, analytical skills and career success. Why? As one author notes, “Because their education has prepared them for change.”
A liberal arts education may not teach you how to perform an appendectomy or build a bridge, however it will teach you how to think. Being broadly educated, rather than narrowly trained, will hold these grads in good stead in the long run. And this factor alone makes a liberal arts education more practical and useful than any job-specific training ever could.