In Defense of a Liberal Arts Degree

This morning, LinkedIn sent me its “Top News for Anna” aggregation. The topics they tend to send me range from education, to jobs, to publishing. I clicked on the following– Why a BA is Now a Ticket to A Job in a Coffee Shop. The article includes quick research, a few graphs, and some spotty assumptions, but I found the reader comments most interesting.

Readers of the Daily Beast are well-spoken, and they don’t hold back. Comments tend to break down in favor of or against the opinions expressed in the original article– then there are the tangential arguments. The tangent that piqued my interest this morning was STEM education vs. Liberal Arts training.

STEM folks generally argue that the degreed students working as baristas have an English, sociology, or some other humanities-based degree. If they had only spent their loans on getting an engineering or some other tech-based degree they’d have a job. These commenters opine that the reason we hire so many international workers is because well-trained American’s are hard or impossible to find.

I do not doubt the truth of these arguments, but 1) there are many reasons for the underemployment mess we are in and 2) there is value in the liberal arts degree.

I teach adult students English. My classes help them improve their skills so that they can place out of remedial college courses that cost money but do not give them college credits. They each have different dreams and paths. Some hope to leave menial or physically taxing work as they age. Some need a college degree to move up in their current work. Many are middle-aged women whose husbands had affairs, abused them, or decided they were done with marriage. They are looking for gainful employment that will keep them above the poverty line. My students often see college as a path to specific work because these days– that is how college is marketed.

I teach my students how important it is, in an age of text communication, to be able to read and write. I teach them how to read critically, how to question, how to make connections, how to cite their resources. I teach them to discern the thesis of a paper, to engage a reader, to support an argument. I teach them that words matter, that everyone brings something important to a discussion, that the opinion you’ve held forever can and will be challenged. This is the value of education for education sake.

Because of ongoing and high unemployment rates, employers have a pool of applicants that is both deep and wide. They sort and discard resumes for narrow criteria. No masters degree? Out. The wrong BA? Out. Not enough experience? Out. Too much experience? Out. They have no reason to give a chance to someone who doesn’t meet their narrow view of “highly qualified.” I say to them– beware.

The world of work is swiftly changing. The technical degree we need desperately today may be obsolete tomorrow. A liberal arts degree graduates critical and creative thinkers. These workers– no, these humans are life long learners who deftly transfer their knowledge from one field and apply it to another. Hire them to sit with your STEM trained employees, and there is no limit to what can be created. We only succeed as a society when we nurture and value everyone’s gifts and knowledge.

7 thoughts on “In Defense of a Liberal Arts Degree

  1. *wolf whistles* Hear that? That’s me applauding from my living room in NJ. Great post, Anna.

    1. Hey, Ann. So nice to see you here! (How’s that revision going? Mine is stalled *covers face in shame*) I’m hired through Merrymeeting Adult Education which is an office of a local public school. The program that I teach in, College Transitions, is granted by the state http://www.maine.gov/education/aded/dev/transitions.htm. I’m interested by the concern you bring up which is that even people with high level science degrees are facing similar challenges in the job market.

      1. Thanks for the information. I don’t believe anything like that exists in this area, but I’ll check. As far as employment goes, I seem to have three strikes against me: 1) my age, 2) too much education, and 3) too much time out of the workforce.
        My revisions are going slowly. Good luck with yours.

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