Is a Liberal Arts College a Good Fit for Me?

Getting a degree in the liberal arts — with majors such as Philosophy, History, or Literature — is not usually thought of as the key to success. But give me a chance, as I want to change your mind.

“Liberal arts” is the general term for the Humanities (such as English Literature, Modern Languages, History, Philosophy), Social Sciences (such as Anthropology, Sociology, Economics, Psychology, and Political Science) and the Visual and Performing Arts (such as Fine Art, Theatre, Speech, and Creative Writing). Even though only about 20-30% of all students major in these areas, I want to suggest that having such a degree may be one of the best decisions a student can make.

If you don’t believe me, listen to Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple. “Technology alone is not enough,” he said when Apple first launched the iPad. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

And if you still don’t believe me, listen to Mark Cuban, the billionaire American businessman who owns an NBA basketball team and is a “shark” investor on the hit TV show Shark Tank: “I’m going to make a prediction,” he said last year, “In 10 years, a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be worth more than a traditional programming degree.”

And if you still don’t believe me, listen to McKinsey & Company, an American worldwide management consulting firm that consults to 80% of the world’s largest corporations. McKinsey argues that companies worldwide are going through a “skills shift” over the next 10 to 15 years: “the adoption of automation and AI technologies will transform the workplace as people increasingly interact with ever-smarter machines.” This means the most important skills are going to be “social and emotional.” The top skills? “Advanced communication,” followed by entrepreneurship, initiative taking, leadership and managing others.

That to me sounds like the liberal arts. Boston College, in fact, calls it the “liberal arts advantage”: “A Boston College liberal arts education compels students to think and learn across disciplines, prepares graduates for a range of rewarding careers, and helps them discern who they want to be—and why. By exploring enduring questions and complex problems, like human nature and climate change, liberal arts students acquire the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind and heart they will need to thrive as well-rounded, reflective people in a diverse, global society.”

I like that. A lot. I like that because research shows that today’s graduates will change jobs at least ten times in their lives, which could include five or more career changes. Think about that fact…instead of learning one or two different things in depth across your entire working career, today’s students must learn completely different jobs and industries every single decade of their adult lives.

Companies know this. They know that while a new employee may be competent in something — like coding or finance or marketing — what’s really important is how they are able to learn and develop over time. Obed Louissant, IBM Watson’s Vice President of Human Resources, says that IBM actively looks for diversity in applicants’ backgrounds: “Individuals who’ve gone to university and studied something like French or philosophy, later on they can determine, ‘Hey, the world is being rewritten in code. I’d like to see what that’s about.’ They bring those differences in the way in which they were taught or the way in which they live life. Then we provide better products, better software, and better services and better hardware to our clients and to the world.”

That’s exactly what majors such as Sociology, History, Philosophy, and Political Science give you: fostering critical thinking, ethical reasoning, creativity, empathy, and effective communication. These are usually called “soft skills,” and trust me, they’re hard to teach. That’s why companies such as Google actually put these skills as the top qualities they look for in hiring and reward in promotions. In fact, Google did an internal study — they called it “Project Oxygen” — that found that there were eight great qualities of a Google employee, and having STEM expertise was the least important! The top ones? Being a good communicator and listener, understanding others (especially those different from yourself), being a strong supporter, critical thinker and problem solver, and knowing how to make connections across complex ideas.

I would thus recommend three things for students considering choosing a liberal arts major:

Read. Read. Read. The liberal arts are grounded in thousands of years of history and literature. There is no easy way to gain this knowledge without reading it. You can start with the Western classics (such as Plato’s Republic, Homer’s Illiad, or Cervantes’ Don Quixotte) or the Eastern classics (such as Confucious’ Analects or Lao Tzu’s The Way of Lao Tzu). But in either case, try to understand the bigger picture of how and why these books and ideas still matter. There are some great free courses out there that can help you with this. Tsinghua University, for example, offers a MOOC through edX called “Plato, Socrates, and the Birth of Western Philosophy” or check out the “Introduction to Philosophy” course offered by the University of Edinburgh through Coursera.

Stop Reading and Do Something. There is a very strong tradition of service and justice in the liberal arts tradition. In the end, you can’t really write or read about love, hate, war, greed, joy or sorrow without experiencing it. Volunteering — at a daycare center, school, NGO, or hospital — can help you connect with people and see up close the daily struggles and successes of people from all walks of life. This is what philosophers call the “human condition” and what great literature is about and what history is made of.

Do what you love. What I always look for, yet rarely find, is whether students are passionate. It doesn’t even matter what they are passionate about. It could be helping little kids, understanding how nature works, or the novels of Jane Austen. Students who end up successful are the ones who figure out what makes them intellectually excited and then pursue that with maximum intensity. These are the students I love to teach and the students who make their own path through college and beyond. The large number of majors in the liberal arts offer students a huge number of options to figure out what makes them excited.

In the end, I find Steve Jobs quote — “technology alone is not enough” — incredibly profound. We are overwhelmed today with too much information, too much noise, too much data. What we really need today are not more graduates who can give us more of the same, but graduates who can step back and think through and see the world in a different way. Majoring in the liberal arts gives students this foundation.

Article Written By:

Dan Sarofian-Butin
Foundation’s University Strategy Advisor and Essay Coach

Dan Sarofian-Butin, PhD, is a Full Professor in, and was Founding Dean of, the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College. Dr. Sarofian-Butin has a B.S. in Management Science from MIT, an M.A. in Liberal Education from St. John’s College, and a Ph.D. in Social Foundations of Education from the University of Virginia.

Dr. Sarofian-Butin has been named as one of the top 200 “Public Presence” Education Scholars five years in a row and blogs at the Huffington Post and InsideHigherEd. Dr. Sarofian-Butin has consulted for, among others, the US Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), been a visiting scientist at MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, and has been the keynote speaker at institutions such as Duke University, the University of Toronto, and the Ohio State University

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