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The liberal arts: Not just for the unemployable anymore

Colleges and UniversitiesCultureJob Market

Let's start with something I, as a university administrator, am not supposed to say or even think. The humanities and social sciences, the heart of the liberal arts — its students, its graduates, its practitioners — are doomed. They are doomed to irrelevancy. Doomed to shrinking numbers. Doomed to unemployment and underemployment. Doomed to live eternally in mom and dad's basement, playing video games, dining on chips and salsa, and delivering stuffed crust pizza for a living.

That is what we are constantly told, at least. That sociology majors cannot make a living, that theater majors will end up waiting tables while pining vainly for audition callbacks, that no one wants to hire graduates in philosophy or political science or ethnic studies, whatever that is. And English majors ... well, they are and always will be the butt of every burger-flipping joke conceived — beef tallow on the sheepskin.

Just this past summer, the University of Virginia, founded by that champion of the broadest liberal learning, Thomas Jefferson, made headlines because its board fired President Teresa Sullivan in part for having the temerity to defend liberal arts programs from elimination. Yes, she was subsequently reinstated, but the message about the current valuation of the liberal arts was loud and clear.

Lately, Bill Maher, the comedian and self-appointed pundit, has taken to calling liberal arts degrees self-indulgent "BS" (only he does not abbreviate on his cable TV show). Bill Maher should know. He went to Cornell. Bill Maher double majored in English and History.

Even more recently, a letter writer to The Baltimore Sun disparaged majoring in the liberal arts as "a four-year lifestyle choice."

Such criticism suggests that life's only purpose is to survive and succeed in the crudest sense, that those best poised for achievement are those most ready to get naked and run into the woods with sharpened sticks — no need for sharpened minds.

Obviously, with such cocksure criticism of the humanities and social sciences, we can conclude that few if any truly successful people ever have a liberal arts background. Right?

It must be just dumb luck or some sort of freakish anomaly, then, that many of the most successful among us —such as the CEOs of some of our most prestigious corporations — majored in burger-flipping fields. I will not bore you with the list. Just Google "fortune 500 CEO majors" or "successful liberal arts graduates" if you are curious.

Speaking of successful liberal arts grads, two high-achieving sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, measured learning over the course of 2,300 students' college careers and reached some devastating conclusions. In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa show that one-third of the students they studied "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" after four years. That said, they also found that liberal arts majors showed "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study."

What's more, the Association of American Colleges and Universities' 2010 employer survey found that employers rate skills such as written and oral communication, critical thinking, complex problem solving, ethics, teamwork and innovation at the very top of their college graduate wish list. A 2012 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers had remarkably similar results. Notice that the skills that employers crave correlate closely with those Academically Adrift identifies as the metier of the liberal arts. Conclusion: if your "four-year lifestyle choice" is to learn the habits of mind employers value, then the liberal arts are for you.

I frequently speak with successful professionals who, like Bill Maher, imagine their careers have nothing to do with their liberal arts degrees. They overlook the direct benefits of those degrees, the skills and practices they developed. So what if they did not become an anthropology professor or a historian? They succeed because of their liberal arts background, certainly not despite it. And, evidence and common sense suggest that their employers and clients greatly appreciate their "soft" skills.

But we as a society insist on telling them and their humanities and social science brethren they are wasting their time. Wasting their lives. Why? Because they have not sharpened enough sticks?

An aphorism often attributed to Albert Einstein (or was it William Cameron?) comes to mind at this moment: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." Sharpened sticks are all too easy to count, and they will never be a match for a sharpened mind.

Jim Salvucci, Ph.D., is a gainfully employed English major working as a professor of English and as the dean of the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Stevenson University. His email is jsalvucci@stevenson.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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