The student who decides to pursue a liberal arts education in University often faces a discouraging reaction from family and friends. Everyone seems to know a B. A. in Philosophy who is flipping burgers at Wendy’s, or an M. A. in English who is clerking at Wal-Mart. Students who choose liberal arts hear the same remarks over and over: “What good is a degree in Medieval History, or Chinese literature, or Classics? Study something practical and get a real job!
” In fact, however, no degree provides an automatic job ticket, since the market for employment is constantly in flux. The liberal arts offer education, not training, and thus prepare students for a wide range of possibilities in both work and life. By developing their minds through a liberal arts education, students benefit themselves, their eventual careers, and the culture at large . For anyone interested in personal and intellectual growth, the liberal arts offer immeasurable benefits.
Studies in such fields as English and Philosophy introduce a student to the great writers and thinkers whose ideas have shaped our culture. By working through the dialogues of Plato, students see logic in action; by studying the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Wordsworth, or the novels of Dickens, they realize the power of language. Without knowledge of the great writers and thinkers of the past, people operate in a vacuum, unable to see beyond their immediate world. How can they gauge the validity of ideas if they know nothing except the present moment?
In a media-driven culture of instant celebrity, students need to experience truths that have endured over hundreds and even thousands of years. These truths expand their thinking beyond their immediate limitations, and they discover new insights into their own minds. The benefits of a liberal arts education, however, go beyond personal growth into longer-term career skills. Every liberal arts course from Art History to Women’s Studies requires proficiency in reading and writing.
Graduates with Arts degrees find their communication skills in demand by employers seeking people who can read, write, and speak well. As Francis Bacon observed nearly 400 years ago, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man, and writing an exact man”(106). No courses develop these skills more fully than do those in the liberal arts. In addition, the liberal arts foster analytical thought: the ability to break an argument into its parts and assess its validity.
Clear analysis is fundamental to the practical worlds of trade and commerce. Finally, the liberal arts encourage originality, as students learn to think in creative ways. The student who gives an inventive presentation or develops a fresh perception will enhance the workplace with that creativity. It’s no surprise that law schools actively seek liberal arts graduates for its programs, or that jobs in the civil service, human resources, and upper management are typically staffed by people with Arts degrees. The only surprise is that anyone still scoffs at the notion that a general B. A. is a useful degree.
As significant as its impact may be on personal and career growth, the real value of a liberal arts education is found in its benefits to the culture as a whole. The liberal arts retain and transmit the history of civilization itself. Without a commitment to preserving that history, our culture runs the risk of forgetting or distorting its past. Liberal arts students serve as guardians of intellectual thought for the next generation. Writers, journalists, film-makers, and politicians – the people shaping the thoughts and actions of the future – are drawn from the ranks of liberal arts majors.
For example, the creator of the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling, has an undergraduate degree in Classics, and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff earned degrees in History. Moreover, the liberal arts tend to be interdisciplinary in nature. Knowledge in one area illuminates another, so that instead of creating a society of narrow specialists, liberal arts studies actually encourage a culture of educated, open-minded people. Such individuals have both the capacity and the training to address practical problems in society.
Leading reformers of the 20th century, including Nelson Mandela (“Nelson”) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Martin”), profited from their liberal arts studies. A degree in the liberal arts is not a dead-end route that culminates in a lifetime of serving fries or stocking shelves. Rather, it is a doorway that opens to paths heading in every direction. Students who expand their minds through liberal arts benefit themselves, their future career choices, and the wider culture.