Wednesday, September 12, 2012

To Corporations: In Defense of the Liberal Arts Major

Even twelve years ago, the joke at The University of Texas Freshman Orientation was “Why be a liberal arts major when you’ll just be asking ‘you want fries with that’ in four years?”.  Back then, it was still a joke. Because it was funny--most people with liberal arts degrees (everyone I knew, actually) were able to get corporate or nonprofit jobs upon graduation.  Now, I suspect that no one is laughing at that joke any more.

As the economy suffers, so does the perceived value of a liberal arts education to employers.  And it breaks my heart to think that there’s so many students in college today up to their eyeballs in loans studying things they really aren’t interested in and might even loathe, just to be able to compete in the marketplace for an ever diminishing pool of open jobs.

I currently pay for my own education and shell out over $300 a month in student loans and will continue to do so for yet another ten years.  I won’t lie, sometimes I’m politically bitter over the cost of education at a state school in this country with few opportunities to win scholarships, but overwhelmingly I believe it was a small price to pay for the best four years of my life.

See, I got to major in something I was absolutely passionate about for four years--psychology.  I chose not to pursue it as a career for several reasons.  I knew I wasn’t cut out for counseling psychology after spending time amongst grad students who had to run out of really good parties to take calls from suicidal patients.  It wasn’t the fact that they were missing the party, but I understood that I needed a job I could completely disconnect from at the end of the day for my own sanity.  After working in a research lab, I also understood that the moral hazards and stress of “publish or perish” was not going to lead to my happiness.

But the liberal arts classes were so fulfilling that it was actually a pleasure to study and perform well in any class I took, no matter how intense.  I made an A for the last three years in college in every course I took.  It was because I had the privilege of taking classes in fascinating subjects taught by brilliant teachers outside of my major such as British Literature, Modern Dance, Sociology, Early American Feminism, Congress, Philosophy, and Mythology.  These classes taught me how to write, think critically, be disciplined, and be a better consumer of culture in general.

The only classes I always dreaded and struggled to crack the book on were my Business minor classes.  With the exception of my Management course, my classes were tedious, painful, and often excruciatingly hard to even conjure up a passing interest.  So much of it seemed like fancy words and flow charts for common sense procedures and ideas.

And as school starts, there are legion of students in lecture halls studying something they loathe because their parents are dictating their majors, or because they’re terrified they won’t be able to pay off their loans upon graduation.  And studying something I bet a lot of them find...overwhelmingly boring.  Why pay thousands to have a miserable experience?

I want to make the case for the value of a liberal arts education, even--especially--in this high-tech, business focused world.  In my first job out of college as a Business Analyst, due to the Advanced Statistics courses I had to take for my psych major, I could do more in Excel than most business majors that were in my new hire class.  Learning database administration seemed common sense and intuitive thanks to the way I was taught to think strategically.  I had taken enough Sociology to know how to work with our offshore team in India compassionately and effectively.  I could be trusted to write to our sensitive clients since I had to take so many writing component courses.  Corporations are loath to spend money on training, but I would hire a liberal arts major whose education is based on critical thinking and an ability to communicate any day.  You can teach anyone to write SQL or SAS if they understand logical thinking.

Even after I wound up leaving corporate America, I apply my degree extensively as I pursue my Yoga certification.  Part of taking so many classes in liberal arts is that you read hundreds of pages a week.  You have to maintain an open mind and a creative spirit when you’re reading things like dry philosophy texts and ancient Greek plays, mining them for deeper meanings to write a paper.  As a part of Yoga certification, I am required to read ancient Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.   Most of the people in my trainings either do the readings begrudgingly, or approach the texts with abject hostility, fearing that their religion is being questioned.  I devoured the readings, so ecstatic at the opportunity to get to delve into something new, and understand new ideas and bring them to my students.  I was taught in my Contemporary Moral Problems Philosophy course to appreciate any work I was assigned to read by approaching it with an open mind, no matter my personal beliefs.

This love of learning and openness to new ideas was absolutely kindled during my University education.  I consider it an immense privilege to have had 4 years to study things that fascinate me. And that makes me able to sleep at night after I pay $300 monthly  for what many consider to be a “useless” major.  The people who are unable to appreciate the value this sort of education are the ones I pity.

Just last night, watching the premier of Sons of Anarchy, my fellow liberal arts major husband pointed out several really cool visual motifs and themes I had missed.  He also graduated at a time where liberal arts majors could get jobs; he is now in risk management in mortgage banking.  I expressed how impressed I was at the things he’d noticed and he just shrugged and said “Being an English major teaches you to look deeper.”  It was just like a feeling I had wandering the Louvre years ago and understanding the symbolism in the works from my Mythology, Dance, and Literature classes on another level than the average tourist and what the audio tour offered.

Sure, all of this artistic knowledge may not feed your stomach in today’s world, but it feeds the soul.  And corporations would do well to invest in the students who appreciate this sentiment and have a burning love for learning, communication, and achievement.