Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Heads Out of the Sand, Please: Liberal Arts Degrees

When it comes to the question of liberal arts degrees and their inherent value / practicality, the discussion often seems to veer toward one of two extremes: the Liberal Arts Degrees Are a Hoity-Toity Waste of Time and Money extreme, and the We Need to Produce More Intellectuals, Not Corporate Drones extreme. Which is why I found Kim Brooks’ recent Salon article fairly refreshing. The article’s title, Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree?, might raise a few hackles, but the short answer to that question, at least for Brooks, is no. We don’t need to kill the degree–we just need to balance a well-rounded education with practical skills and advice for the post-college job seeker.

As Brooks points out, liberal arts colleges are often woefully unequipped to help their students transition from college to the working world. There’s the usually understaffed career center, campus career fairs, and internship opportunities, but when it comes to answering the question of how an English / history / art major can earn a living outside of teaching, professors and advisers are often at a loss. In the worst cases, they turn their noses up at such questions. In the best cases, they offer general advice about following your heart.

It’s little wonder, then, that so many parents are reluctant to pay for a liberal arts degree. With huge numbers of college grads unable to find employment and even returning home to live with their parents, the vague promises offered by a degree in art or literature are surely a lot less appealing than a degree in business or science.

The problem isn’t the degree itself–it’s the fact that universities can’t seem to see beyond their students’ fourth year. Brooks writes that she tried to talk to multiple deans at the University of Virginia about post-graduation employment rates and was generally given platitudes. The director of career services said that the center “(helps) students see how the patterns and themes of their interests, skills and values, might relate to particular arenas.” Other deans seemed annoyed at the questions themselves and simply refused to comment.

While I completely agree that a liberal arts degree has an inherent value well beyond a job qualification, it’s clear that universities need to stop burying their heads in the sand when it comes to the post-university livelihoods of their liberal arts majors. Professors need to be more aware of the job possibilities for their students (surely they don’t think that every student who majors in literature will go on to be either a lit professor or a successful fiction writer?). Universities need to keep more accurate records of their post-graduation employment rates. Guest speakers–former liberal arts grads working in a variety of fields–would be a great idea.

Humanities grad programs suffer from the same blind spot, as I’ve written about many times before (see “Professionalization Courses: In Need of an Overhaul”). Sure, they’ll prepare you for the job market, but only the very specific, hyper-competitive market of tenure-track professorships. As with liberal arts colleges, questions about earning a living are often met with upturned noses.

The bottom line here is that getting a liberal arts degree and caring about your career prospects don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  Colleges can offer liberal arts degrees AND concrete career advice without compromising their goal of producing well-rounded citizens. Academia just needs to extend its vision beyond its own walls.

2 comments on “Heads Out of the Sand, Please: Liberal Arts Degrees

  1. Anthea
    June 25, 2011

    But surely the skills that are learned in grad school can be redeployed? So, it is possible to argue that everyone is trained for the job market regardless of whether some have opted for the tenure track professoships. I’d have to disagree with you regards the value of a liberal arts degree since the point of attending university as an undergraduate is to learn a bunch of skills which can be deployed. The information classified as a ‘liberal arts information’ is, at one level, just the body of data which is being used to learn new skill sets and techniques that must be taught to the undergraduates so that they can be deployed outside of the academic sphere.

  2. Anonymous
    June 27, 2011

    Anthea–you’re right that liberal arts degrees should teach a certain skill set that can be deployed outside of the academic sphere. My problem isn’t so much with the degrees themselves, it’s with the attitudes of faculty and administrators. I know that it’s technically not their job to make sure that every liberal arts undergrad gets employed, but a blatant disregard for / disdain for any talk of how to earn a living bothers me. As people with (hopefully) some experience in the job market and the world in general, I just wish that faculty and administrators would give liberal arts undergrads a little more concrete info about transitioning from college to the job market.

    In the case of grad school, my frustration is that so much of the coursework, the exams, the design of the thesis topic, and the professionalization component is all geared toward the tenure-track job–other job possibilities aren’t even mentioned. This is changing, of course, if slowly. While those skills learned in grad school can of course be redeployed, I think they’d be *more* re-deployable if grad students were given a little more leeway in planning their grad careers.

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Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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