Who’s Afraid of a Liberal Arts Education?

RoseAnn Foster

Critics of liberal arts education tend to mistake the title on the diploma for what the graduate will do for a living. Thus, they think pre-professional majors are better because they directly translate into a career path. This business approach to education stems from an understandable desire to play it safe. Parents and students fear that if they deviate from this formula the students will not have at least the same wealth and status as the parents. They fail to understand that a liberal arts education teaches skills applicable in a career.

In William Deresiewicz’s article for The American Scholar, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” he states, “…the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out…they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another.” Deresiewicz notes that at a university, students of all different races are all from the same socio-economic classes: the upper and middle classes. These middle and upper class students have never faced failure and generally speaking, expect success. Parents of these students want to know exactly how the money they are shelling out for their child’s education translates to at least the same standard of living they have been able to provide for their child. This is the primary fear driving education today, and that fear drives decisions regarding students’ primary area of study.

Sometimes this means parents go so far as to dictate a major for their college-bound child. A fellow student of my acquaintance was given only the option of an education or journalism major because her parents felt her passion—an English degree—would not immediately lead to a career. The misconception that liberal arts degrees only teach skills that could loosely be summed up by the phrase “Will think for food” has caused many to shy away from them. 

As an English major myself, I have had many ask (often with a smirk) what I plan to do after graduation, and I often encounter surprise when it becomes clear that I understand the value inherent in my diploma. Students and parents alike shrink away from any degree that might not lead to immediate success in a world already familiar to them. Indeed, they are unwilling to encounter the world already familiar to them. As Deresiewicz points out, those only concerned with maintaining their standard of living by playing it safe in their education never learn to communicate with those unlike themselves.

This is why people fear a liberal arts education. The only solution is a liberal arts education. Initially, this may seem ironic. How can the answer to such fear of a liberal education be a liberal education? The liberal arts education is designed not only to acquaint students with a broad knowledge base, it also educates students to think for themselves, which in turn enables them to take calculated risks. 

This is precisely why businesses seek employees equipped with a liberal arts education. As Carol T. Christ writes in “Myth: A Liberal Arts Education Is Becoming Irrelevant,” published by the American Council on Education: “Flexibility, creativity, critical thinking, and strong communication skills (particularly writing) are at the core of liberal arts education and critical to success today and in the future…A liberal arts education often presents students with contradictory opinions from different viewpoints, forcing an in-depth examination and critical distillation of data.” By teaching these skills and making students familiar with many disciplines, a liberal arts education not only teaches students to communicate with those unlike themselves, but also produces humility and the ability to evaluate risks and rewards. 

It is clear, then, that a liberal education is the answer to encouraging free thought and innovation. It is not something to fear. A liberal education, despite what the critics seem to think, is a valuable, necessary tool for the workplace. Beyond that, it equips students with skills necessary for life. However, advocates of the liberal arts must recognize the primary barrier keeping students from pursuing such an education: fear. 

RoseAnn Foster is a senior at the University of Mississippi majoring in English. The University of Mississippi is home to the Beta of Mississippi Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.