In Defense Of The Liberal Arts

About a month ago, a Thought Catalog contributor expressed his concerns about the liberal arts and offered a solution: obliterate them. The writer, who majored in history himself, states that the liberal arts are for students who want the easy way out; they don’t want to study science, so they dabble in communications or poetry instead. These degrees, he suggests, are pointless: “If someone can’t handle the STEM majors (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, for those who aren’t familiar with the acronym), they have no business in college. While this sounds unnecessarily harsh, the realities of the 21st century world would make it true.”

Okay. Let’s determine what the definition of “liberal arts” is before we go any further. The term “liberal arts” refers to the areas of literature, writing, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology  and sciences. The liberal arts do not encompass the vocational, professional or technical curricula. “Liberal arts,” as it turns out, is a pretty broad field that universities have encouraged and sustained over the last few hundred years.

The author is not the first to openly argue that liberal arts degrees such as English and history are becoming obsolete, mainly due to the internet and other 21st century technological advances. Forbes magazine keeps going back and forth about the current value of a liberal arts education; some writers even speculate that the liberal arts colleges themselves will be going bankrupt any day now. Tim Worstall, in his Forbes article “Should We Abolish Liberal Arts Degrees? Quite Possibly, Yes,” states, “This lives on our current universities in the lecture: almost wholly a waste of time as far as I can see… Even a video of a decent lecturer would work better than insisting that everyone turn up at the same time in the same place.” With the convenience of the internet, many people are starting to speculate that we don’t need to go to school and pay up to $160,000 to learn literature, history, philosophy, psychology and more. We should just save that cash and create forums on blogs where we cultivate a group of American literature aficionados and deconstruct Mark Twain and John Steinbeck, or meet up at coffee shops to talk Foucault.

These contributors have some palpable ideas, but let’s say we do abolish the scorned liberal arts. What would we be left with? Our interest in the English language could very well decline as a whole. With the extinction of rhetoric classes, we might all be stuck at a 12th grade reading and writing level. Emails, advertisements, creative teams and editorial work for magazines could become atrocious. Without philosophy and political science courses, critical thinking and the ability to eloquently express one’s thoughts and opinions on politics, current events and literature would be much more difficult without the formal structure. And trust me, I’m not saying you need a college degree to be an analytical thinker, but if we eradicate these discussion and writing-based courses altogether, the growth of higher thought would be more likely to stagnate. How are we supposed to discuss Russian literature, let’s say, without an authority figure that is actually well-versed in the subject matter? Creative writing majors such as myself, are doomed without workshops. Writing students would be left without the guidance and environment where they can share their work and get the necessary, structured feedback and constructive criticism on their stories, poems, essays, and novels. Let’s be honest. Friends don’t want to sit there and read your poetry, and they probably wouldn’t be able to advise you on issues such as line breaks, word choice, fluidity, or assonance. Unless these friends went and got a degree in writing.

Trashing the liberal arts would not only be devastating to society, but thousands upon thousands of professors and instructors would be put out of work. Not only the people who earned their PhDs, published books and taught for years, but high-school teachers as well, since most initially started by earning a liberal arts degree.

The thing is, we need the liberal arts. I think that the Thought Catalogwriter and countless others who opposed these fields wouldn’t want to live in a world without them, either. If we get rid of English, communications, writing, and linguistics degrees, then scary-bad “professional” e-mails, resumes, cover-letters, menus, and advertisements will take over the world.  The individuals who argue that pursuing a liberal arts degree is like sentencing yourself to a life without a solid career is not altogether wrong, but do you think if everyone studies something “practical” than those “practical” job markets won’t become saturated as well? The Thought Catalogcontributor states,

“When intellectual cravens flee from STEM majors they often find refuge in “easy” liberal arts degrees. If those degrees were removed, those people would batten down their mental hatches and major in something useful, or they’d pursue building worthwhile skills outside of Academia; they’d become plumbers and electricians instead of miserable, cash-strapped, debt-laden retail workers”.

Let’s clarify one thing: just because you major(ed) in a liberal art does not mean you are forever unemployed, or cursed as a “debt-laden retail worker”. Just like anything in life, whether you majored in art or biochemical engineering, it takes time and hard work in order to find a good job. The philosophy of a liberal arts degree is that once you have graduated, doors can open for you because you are knowledgeable and well-rounded. You are capable of thinking outside the box and drawing upon the content you learned in multiple fields, and this can make you a valuable and desirable employee.

According to Karen Abigail, director of admissions at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts in New York, “A liberal arts education is more important than ever because with the recent economic downturn, we witnessed a decline (and in some cases, the elimination) of several important industries, leaving highly-skilled employees out of work in careers where job growth is not expected.” Furthermore, although people can be taught technical skills, the “people” skills and effective communication that liberal arts majors learn in college are becoming more and more sought-after and useful in careers such as marketing, business, advertisement, and other booming industries.

I’m not going quote The Dead Poet’s Society here, but I’m going to say that it’s okay to do and learn what you love. I chose to major in creative writing, and yes, it’s hard to find a full-time job, but I’m not going to blame my education on this. I’m currently in graduate school with hopes of becoming an English professor one day. But right now, I’m busting ass as a freelance writer, teacher’s assistant, tutor, and college counselor. And you know what? I love it all; it feels good to finish a poem, story, and article that people actually read. I understand I’ll never have a lot of money, and I’m okay with that. I don’t regret majoring in a liberal arts field and I can’t imagine doing anything different.

What do you guys think? Should we do away with the liberal arts?

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