The liberal arts and the U.S. economy: Never, ever getting back together?

Slide1In my senior year of high school, I was admitted to my first choice of college, a small, beautiful, expensive institution where I could study creative writing with caring and accomplished professors. Located in a tiny town nestled in Ohio’s cornfields, it was a great place to read Shakespeare, appear in a campus production of the Vagina Monologues, take a course on the anthropology of human sexuality, and stargaze with friends.

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Yours truly, the day before graduation.

I credit college with fostering my critical thinking skills, creativity, and enthusiasm for lifelong learning. I came into my own in a close-knit community that provided personal as well as academic enrichment. Grads of other liberal arts colleges often tell a similar story.

However, to hear some tell it, liberal arts colleges today are about as credible as Bill Cosby’s reputation.

“The ultimate question is whether or not what you’re doing is good enough for the job market,” says Eric Kedaigle, a 24-year-old software engineer based in the Boston area, “A liberal arts education teaches you how to think, but companies aren’t looking just for people to know how to think.”

Eric’s alma mater, Northeastern University, offers a sophisticated co-op program, allowing students to take a semester off to gain work experience. “In industry, you need to know how to implement stuff: You can do it or you can’t,” he explains, “You can’t cram for board design like you cram for a test. I learned more during my final co-op than I did in all my classes.”

Eric’s wife, Amanda, has a milder opinion of her experience at Wellesley College: “An education shouldn’t always be solely about getting a job. If you can afford it, you should use the opportunity to broaden your horizons.”

As an English major who valued what college had to offer — but then struggled to secure employment after graduation (check out my post about that here) — I find myself wavering between these points of view.

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The Kedaigles have different points of view on the liberal arts.

On the one hand, Eric has a solid point. In a recent Quartz article, Miles Kimball suggests that employers value proven skills over a paper B.A. “Certificates that can credibly attest to someone’s ability to write computer code, write a decent essay, use a spreadsheet, or give a persuasive speech,” he explains, “are going to be worth more and more.”

Tamar Jacoby, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, offers up the analogy of a driver’s license: “When you rent a car and the rental agency checks your license, he or she could care less where you learned to drive or how long it took … All the agency needs to know is that you know how to drive.” Jacoby also points out that, even with record unemployment in the U.S., about 5 million jobs remain unfilled due to a supposed skills gap.

According to a recent Pew Research survey, college grads who majored in the social sciences, the liberal arts, or education are more likely to hold jobs unrelated to their field of study. Alarmingly, 33% of such grads — a far higher number than science, engineering or business grads — “regret” their choice of major.

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My post-grad home

In the two years since I packed my rolling suitcase and left rural Ohio for Boston, I’ve experienced my share of ups and downs. Sometimes, I blame that on my generation’s general hardships. Other times, I blame a lack of chemistry: If my B.A. and the job market went on a first date, they’d leave before paying the bill.

But wait. My college years — professors, friends, books devoured, life lessons learned — will always take up prime real estate in my heart.

“Learning to learn” is one of the most important skills I ever gained in college. Without it, in the past couple of years, I wouldn’t have jumped into a leadership role in a State Senate campaign, taught high school English, worked behind the scenes of a TV show, or tried to pick up HTML and JavaScript in my spare time.

Without it, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to bounce back from that awkward first date.


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