“What are you going to do with that degree?” Many new graduates will hear this question in the coming weeks. For a business or computer science graduate, the answers seem obvious. What about someone studying a liberal arts field, like English or history or philosophy? A common misconception sees these as useless subjects or a waste of valuable resources. Nothing could be further from the truth. Given the skills employers want, the traits we need in the next generation of leaders, and the qualities we value in our neighbors and friends, we might well ask the liberal arts grad, “What can’t you do with that degree?”
The main concern people have about liberal arts is marketability. Where are the jobs for people studying ancient Greek or African history? Everywhere. Because what those students are learning, alongside verb forms and dates, are the skills that appear time and again on top of employers’ wish lists, such as persuasion, collaboration and creativity.
Does this mean that a liberal arts degree is as financially lucrative as computer science or petroleum engineering? No. But liberal arts majors do just fine in the workplace. Liberal arts students go on to earn good livings in a wide variety of fields, including technology. In fact, the median annual income of a liberal arts major is just 8 percent lower than the median for all majors and more than one-third higher than the median income of people without a college degree.
Liberal arts offer not just financial value, but also personal, social and cultural values. The liberal arts take their name from the Latin word “liber,” which means “free.” Originally this referred to the education of free persons as distinct from slaves, but freedom is still at the root of the liberal arts. Liberal arts are a privilege of a free society, and the study of the liberal arts helps to keep us free.
Why is this? Contrary to what some would have us believe, our financial and social well-being depends on how we respond to the kinds of open-ended questions that liberal arts fields are asking. A computer scientist wants to invent a cool new app or technology. Whether he does a good job is measured by how much money his product earns.
As we see all too often, little thought is given to the social effects of these new technologies. They cause serious harm that people trained in writing computer code and making money may be unable or unwilling to address. Earnings can’t measure the things that most of us really care about when we think about new technologies.
This is where the liberal arts come in. The bedrock of a liberal arts education is the ability to understand a complex situation from many different viewpoints. To understand that the same information may look different to different people, or even to the same person at different times. We need the liberal arts to address questions that have no one right answer. And most of the important questions facing society are questions like this.
For instance, with all the technologies revolutionizing our society, how should we balance the need for accurate news and information with individual free speech? Where is the line between a legitimate business use of personal data and exploitation? Who gets to decide? So far, technology companies have done a lousy job of grappling with these questions. Some history majors, with their rich understanding of how complex forces shape society over time, would be a great idea.
Such skills have value in lots of places besides the workplace. The philosophy major on the church executive board is thinking about how the bedrock values of his community should inform decisions about replacing the roof or hiring a new Sunday school teacher. The English major participating in an environmental advocacy group can use her rhetorical and analytical skills to narrow the gap between the near-unanimous scientific consensus on climate change and political inaction on the issue.
The mistaken view that liberal arts are not financially valuable creates the more damaging idea that some fields of study have financial value, while others have social values. With liberal arts, we get both. Our society depends on it.
Deborah Beck is an associate professor of classics at The University of Texas at Austin.