Liberal arts students are the rebels of academia. Their disciplines are often declared impractical and their degrees branded a waste of time and money. And that’s just the feedback coming from some of the parents of liberal arts majors!
The liberal arts seem to be widely misunderstood these days. Once the hallmark of higher education, these domains have gotten a bad rap over the decades, likely because liberal arts majors do not offer the same kind of linear career path as their more “practical" pre-professional counterparts do — think business, education, pre-law, and pre-med.
As a career counselor at a liberal arts college, one of my favorite things to do is help students connect the dots between their majors and their intended career paths. Sure, the dots I’m linking with liberal arts students might result in a picture that’s a little more abstract than, say, a nursing or finance major. But the dots are indeed there, and with a good career plan implemented early in an undergraduate’s education, potential career pictures are much clearer than those naysayers would lead you to believe.
College is expensive. Student loan debt is staggering. It’s no surprise that the desired outcome for students is viable employment after they attain their degree, which is why I start talking to them in their freshman year about having a plan, or at least some semblance of one, for after graduation. But what I want them to understand — and what I want their parents to understand even more — is that it’s not the major that’s getting them the job; rather, it’s their developing work ethic. Their employability grows out of the internship experiences and mentoring opportunities they’ll have if they if they work hard enough. It’s this ability to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and put it to practical use in the real world. All of this — and a whole lot more — are the benefits of a liberal arts education.
Like many of my colleagues in higher education, I don’t like it when a liberal arts education is confused with vocational training — meaning that you spend four years studying a “practical" subject that puts you on a linear path to a “practical" career. I believe that it is shockingly unimaginative to think that English majors can only become literature teachers or that philosophy majors are headed for careers as baristas at Starbucks.
Some of my students seem wise beyond their years. They come to me to talk about careers using terms like “job security" and “work-life balance." I know these are the ones who are getting pressure from adults at home to choose the “right" major. Whether their parents were laid off during the recession or they are simply dumbfounded by what college costs, it’s easy to see that the stress has trickled down to their kids.
Jen Klein is a marketing and technical writer who lives in Duxbury, Massachusetts. She studied art in college and somehow found herself in the software industry. In short, she is living proof that a liberal arts degree can take you down any path.
“My father encouraged me towards a liberal arts degree because, as he said, ‘It teaches you how to think,’" Klein explains. She admits, though, that “I think he really thought the liberal arts would be good preparation for law school."
As a parent of a college student herself, Klein understands where her father was coming from — he wanted her to branch out and learn for the sake of learning, while also having some type of career safety net. Her son is currently a pre-med major — a “practical" major. Does she feel any relief with his choice?
“I wouldn't say relieved at all," Klein says. “I know how hard the medical school/medical training track can be; if anything that makes me a little nervous for a pre-med focus! I would say that I am glad he has identified an area of strong interest, something that he enjoys."
But the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree: In addition to his pre-med major, Klein’s son is minoring in Middle Eastern studies. Klein, true to her liberal arts background, is also a fan of this choice.
“I suspect that this minor will help him be more sensitive to and understanding of our increasingly diverse world," Klein says. “If he does continue on the medical school path, I suspect it will help him understand patients better, and not just patients of Middle Eastern heritage. Learning about other cultures is a way of better understanding the world as a whole."
Even with college costs growing each year, I’m convinced that the liberal arts are far from doomed. As long as college students take advantage of resources like their school’s career development center, and avail themselves of internship, mentoring, and other work or research opportunities, I would argue that it matters very little what your major is.
But then again, that could just be the rebellious academic in me talking.
— Barbara Bellesi was an English and Theatre double major in college. She has never been a barista at Starbucks.