Don’t Knock the Liberal Arts

Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary recently wrote a column titled “Not All College Majors Are Created Equal.”  You can click the link and read the whole thing, but if you’re in a hurry, the first few lines say it all:

I have this game I play when I meet college students.

“What’s your major?” I ask.

The student might say, “English,” “psychology,” “political science” or “engineering.”

And then, in my mind, after factoring in some other information, I say to myself “job” or “no job,” depending on the major.

An English major with no internships or any plan of what she might do with the major to earn a living? No job.

A political science major with no internships that could lead to a specific job opportunity? No job, I think.

Engineering major with three relevant internships in the engineering field? Ding. Ding. We have a winner. Job.

The rest is the same dreary stuff, telling young people to approach getting a college education as if they were going to vocational school.

Being an English major myself, I couldn’t resist posting a comment:

Your advice is unnecessarily mercenary. I graduated from a state college with a degree in English and no prospects. After teaching adult ed and deciding it wasn’t for me I joined the USAF as an officer and became a fighter pilot. My liberal arts education gave me a huge leg up in my military career. Most military officers would rather storm a trench naked, or go into a dogfight with no missiles and an inoperative gun, than write a position paper for a commanding officer or get up on stage to deliver a briefing. I know many military leaders with liberal arts degrees, from infantry unit commanders to submarine skippers. I’m willing to bet you hear from many liberal arts majors who thrive in business as well. I hope things aren’t as bleak as you seem to think they are.

I know times are hard, but I hope they’re not so hard that we have to turn our childrens’ college educations into technical training.  I guess I’m writing this for my granddaughter, who is off to college this fall.  I want her to get an education, not a certification!


2 thoughts on “Don’t Knock the Liberal Arts

  • Funny you should mention it. Your fellow English major (that would be me) went into public service and thence into research and computers. After my initial interview I was asked for a writing sample. Seems the writing sample got me the job, and for just about every promotion or major project from then on, my writing was key. Especially when it came to writing justifications for new, cutting-edge computer hardware and software. Ditto for those boring old research skills we had to learn.

    Given all that, however, and assuming all English major programs are NOT created equal, I find myself back in the early sixties, encouraging all the kids I know to focus on science or math or engineering with a healthy course load of liberal arts courses. I’ll never forget the question on the Law School Admission Test that nearly made me tear up the test and burn down the building. It asked the equivalent of the following: “The following are examples of which art form: opera, symphony, or ballet? I don’t remember the other alternatives, but I did happen to know that “Les Sylphides” was a ballet. Of course, the question had nothing to do with any ability to reason legally (as it were), just whether you’d fit in with the other lawyers (who I’m betting didn’t know any of the works in question).

    Still, I think I missed out when I skipped the science and math courses. Turns out I have a real passion for science, but I discovered it way too late to do any good. Like an English major, science and math also provide a good solid foundation in logic and reasoning, and you get to play with stuff to boot. To say nothing of getting to wear those nifty lab coats.

  • I picked up quite a bit of math and engineering after I left grad school and went to work flying jets. I totally agree a good education is one that includes math and science as well as liberal arts. I regret that mine didn’t. It is certainly true as well that many in the sciences reason well and express themselves clearly. Now that I have totally undermined my original point, ah, what was it we were talking about?

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