If You Want Your Child to Succeed, Don’t Sell Liberal Arts Short
It’s college admissions season, and every parent is mulling the perennial question: “What major will help my child get a good job?”
Standard answers today invariably center on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, often referred to as STEM. Given the skyrocketing costs of higher education, parents and students alike can be forgiven for viewing a college degree as a passport into the professional world, and STEM majors are seen as the best route to professional success.
But my advice is to let your child know that a liberal-arts degree can be a great launching pad for a career in just about any industry. Majoring in philosophy, history or English literature will not consign a graduate to a fate of perpetual unemployment. Far from it. I say this as a trained classicist—yes, you can still study ancient Greek and Latin—who decided to make a transition into the tech world.
I am far from alone. There are plenty of entrepreneurs, techies and private-equity managers with liberal-arts degrees. Damon Horowitz, a cofounder of the search engine Aardvark, holds a doctorate in philosophy. Slack founder Stewart Butterfield and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman both earned master’s degrees in philosophy. The startup where I work employs computer programmers who studied musical composition and philosophy as undergraduates.
Throughout history it has been common for people to study subjects with no immediate relationship to their intended professions. In antiquity, education was intended to enrich students’ lives. Pragmatic benefits such as rhetorical ability, logical reasoning and business skills were welcome byproducts of a good education. The phrase “liberal arts” comes from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “worthy of a free person.” A liberal-arts education gives someone the freedom to participate fully in civic life.
The liberal arts are lately associated with esoteric areas of study. It is true that there are professors teaching Homer, Shakespeare or Jane Austen using dense, impenetrable jargon. I cannot follow most of what those professors say. I doubt many can, even the students who obnoxiously nod along. But professors who attempt to dress up or show off their learning by employing dense, turgid language do their fields—and their students—a great disservice.
The liberal arts are not the purview of a particular ideology or political interest group. Though the liberal arts have cultivated a reputation as a home for radical professors and “woke” students, rest assured that plenty of liberal-arts teachers and majors are anything but activists. The radicals get the headlines simply because their voices are the loudest. I taught undergraduates while I was in graduate school. My students came in every ideological and political stripe imaginable. Some were left-wing organizers while others were staunch conservatives. I am happy to report that students of all political persuasions were able to offer sharp insights on Virgil’s poetry.
Fields of study centered on philosophy, history, literature, art and music help us appreciate the ambiguity of the world, which in turn exercises our creative muscles. Liberal-arts courses don’t offer clearly defined answers to questions. Rather, they nurture disagreement among students and help them develop the ability to marshal cogent arguments in support of defensible positions. The ability to express a viewpoint verbally and then articulate it in writing is a skill that will serve graduates whether they are pitching a business plan to a venture-capital firm or writing a report to shareholders explaining why their portfolios took a hit last quarter.
We should update the liberal arts to take into consideration the realities of the modern world. Software permeates nearly everything. All students, no matter their major, should develop a basic familiarity with coding tool sets such as true-false statements, also called “Booleans,” and if-then or conditional statements.
But coders gain, too, from studying the liberal arts. “The value of an education in a liberal arts college,” said Albert Einstein, “is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” Constructing arguments based on historical evidence or studying rhetoric to improve one’s ability to persuade an audience has obvious applications. Interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems are crucial to addressing modern challenges such as cultivating relationships in an increasingly digital world and creatively integrating new technologies into different sectors of the economy.
So when parents ask themselves “What course of study will help my child get a job?” they shouldn’t think only about how the workforce operates today but how it will operate 10 or 20 years down the road. Though no one knows for sure exactly what the landscape will look like, we can be certain that critical thinking will still have value. And in that world, so will a liberal-arts degree.
Mr. Zimm is a creative strategist at Digital Surgeons, an experience design company.
Appeared in the March 3, 2018, print edition.