Liberal arts degrees undervalued
Liberal arts degrees have long had a rap of being a kind of luxury, add to this stereotype financial difficulties for the schools and employment obstacles for students, and the arts enter into severe scrutiny, if not blatant criticism.
It is expensive to maintain small classes necessary for effective teaching of liberal arts; institutions like Wellesley College, for example, have been struggling to maintain the small number of students in their classes. Additionally, because it is uncommon, though not impossible, for liberal arts graduates to make a fortune, these departments and liberal arts scholarship foundations do not receive as many donations from their alumni as business or engineering programs do.
So, are liberal arts degrees viable? Colleges often wonder if the monetary investment would not be better spent in other departments; parents undergo anxiety attacks when they hear their son or daughter will be majoring in philosophy, history of art, anthropology and other similar studies; and students in these fields often have to double-major in order to secure a job.
Certainly these are the fears, whether they are grounded on a legitimate basis is a different case.
Dr. Joseph Stevenson, a researcher for Jackson State University, recognizes we live in an evidence-based society, but argues there are more ways to reach evidence-based conclusions than through the sciences and similar professions: The liberal arts stimulate research literacy. Students who end up pursuing the arts graduate with a knowledge-seeking orientation, and “the intellectual prowess to employ data-driven analysis and research-centered assessment of everyday living sparked by human intrigue and ignited through the windows of cognitive wonderment.”
The arts, along with science and technology, are an important component of knowledge management and information discernment.
We must also recognize the contributions creativity brings to the development of persons. A recent IBM survey of 1500 CEOs identified creativity as the number one leadership competence, at a time when some research has suggested that American creativity has declined.
Other benefits include cognitive and affective developments. The liberal arts help an individual improve his or her moral reasoning, effective reasoning and problem solving skills, and gives them the inclination to inquire and to lifelong learning. It also teaches them about inter-cultural effectiveness, well-being and leadership.
Nonetheless, many people — some of whom are in positions of influence and power — reject of dismiss these arguments. Take columnist Frank Bruni, for example, who cites data showing 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed, or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary. “Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at Zara where they peddle skinny jeans,” wrote Burni for the New York Times.
To criticize or undermine the liberal arts in such a manner is plainly a display of ignorance. Higher education contributes social innovation and scientific invention to society, and one cannot have the former without making use of the arts. Though the advantages and contributions of STEM branches cannot be sufficiently stressed, to rely exclusively on these studies “unveils an anti-intellectual utilitarianism,” to borrow the words of Paul Stoller, a professor of Anthropology at West Chester University.
Public higher education is a place for skill acquisition and a space for teaching young people how to think. Skills are the instruments for making a comfortable or luxurious living in the work-force, but without a strong, critical, curious and creative way of thinking, skills will lie on weak and cracked foundations, and contribute very little to the happiness and fulfillment of an individual’s life. Stoller believes without the liberal arts, we will produce a highly skilled population of workers who, like automatons, will follow a complex set of instructions, but won’t know how to connect those instructions to a broader technological or social context. Creativity is essential in helping students develop into people who will know how to think, innovate and invent.