As the holidays grow closer, the anxiety builds for the anticipated question from relatives: “What are you doing after college?”
Surrounded by cousins who have just completed medical school and who are entering pharmacy school, I’ll have to answer, “I’m not sure yet.”
And I’m fine with saying that, because, with a liberal arts education, I’ve got options.
The common view of liberal education is too narrow.
“I understand that maybe these young adults are into literature or causes, but are they also into greeting people at Walmart, editing content for peanuts, dumpster diving for food and living hand-to-mouth for the rest of their lives?” Steve Tobak of FOX Business wrote in his article “The Evils of a Liberal Arts Education.”
But a liberal arts education prepares students not just for a specific trade — not just to be a philosopher or an English teacher — but allows for flexibility in the career world that trade schools just don’t offer.
Many successful Americans, such as Carly Fiorina and Mitt Romney, earned “soft” humanities majors, philosophy and English, respectively, and still turned out financially successful.
A recent Wall Street Journal article revealed that government data showed that students from liberal arts colleges made a median salary below $50,000 after 10 years, compared with $70,000 among research university students.
These statistics are probably true. But, for liberal arts students, it’s not just about the paycheck, but about the cultivation of the whole person. The liberal arts teach one first how to live, and then how to make a living.
Critics of the liberal arts look at education with a “trade school” mindset. That is, they believe liberal arts students are all studying to be philosophers or poets, or something similarly “useless.” And, if this was true liberal arts, perhaps life would be as Tobak described. But what makes this education so great and so flexible is precisely its liberality. It enables one to use those passions for “literature or causes” in practical ways because students not only have the rounded skills that all jobs require, but also because the heart as well as the mind is educated.
During the Republican Presidential debate on Nov. 10, Sen. Marco Rubio , R‑FL, criticized the stigmatization of vocational education.
“We need more welders and less philosophers,” Rubio said. Last year, President Obama also said that “folks can can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an Art History degree.”
If education is only for the sake of a career, then the liberal arts are not worth it. But if education is the pursuit of a deeper wisdom first, then a liberal arts education is its own reward. What we need are well-rounded people who can go on to become welders, if that is their vocation, or who can become philosophers or art historians, because those are vocations too.
Certainly, students with a liberal arts education, or at least “soft” majors like English, have career lows. Take for example the geniuses of Hillsdale College’s English Department. After graduation, Associate Professor of English Patricia Bart was a bartender, and Assistant Professor of English Kelly Franklin and Department Chair Stephen Smith were both paid psychology test subjects as well as McDonald’s employees. And yet, they all agree that the knowledge they gained through those experiences was invaluable.
Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” That is how true liberal arts instruct, and why it is worth the possible uncertainty.
But Aristotle was just a philosopher anyway.