Value of Liberal Arts Education

A friend of mine who is director of college counseling at a high school recently wrote to me to ask for assitance with one of her families. The son, a high school senior, totally loves Oberlin and wants to apply early. The dad, on the other hand, doesn't see the value in liberal arts education and feels that the son should pursue a college experience with more direction.

This question has been coming up a lot lately, and it's not personal to Oberlin - many folks out there simply hold the misguided belief that a college program requiring early specialization will yield a more successful career path.

To them, I say watch from 0:40 --> 1:20 of this video. (That's often a good place to start with folks who think we need to "prepare our kids for specific career paths." :-) )

Then I tell them to read this. I found it awhile back, and I think it does a good job of explaining why an education such as the one provided by a place like Oberlin is the best choice to prepare for the 21st century global landscape.

Here's another one, by one of our own associate directors of admission.

And I love what Robert Harris has written here, especially points I, II, and III. (He loses me a bit when he gets into the religious stuff.)

It occurred to me that we will need to begin crafting some of our own messaging around the value of a liberal arts education as this debate heats up - it will no longer be enough to simply communicate the value of Oberlin specifically.

So, Obies, if someone were to ask you why you value your own liberal arts education, or why he or she should choose the same path, how would you respond?

Responses To This Entry:

For me, DFW's commencement speech really captures it--more each time I read it.

There's not an easy summary of it for me, but I'll attempt. He says that a liberal arts education gives us more consciousness--it gives us the power to choose what we think about. This has been true for me. I now think about things on a daily basis that I never even considered before--they were part of the formless ether I swam through every day.

The power of my liberal arts education is that it has exposed me to perspectives and disciplines that I'm not used to or wasn't aware of. (This is why I was so baffled that so many Obies were up in arms about Rove speaking... to me the point of my education is to hear as many diverse perspectives as humanly possible--even the crazy ones I disagree with--if not to be persuaded by them, then to better understand why I'm not persuaded and how to take them apart.) If I choose to, each day I can see the world through a mathematical lens--and it's beautiful. Because of English and Creative Writing classes I've taken I approach books in a more thoughtful and critical way. Because of the few social science classes I've taken and numerous interactions with other Obies and lecturers, I think about the roles of gender, sexuality, race, class, &c. in our society. Not to say I never thought about these things before college, but Oberlin has expanded my understanding--there's so much more complexity to all of these things than I ever anticipated.

People talk a lot about the Oberlin bubble and there's a lot of truth to that. It is always a shock to leave Oberlin and be pushed into a world that doesn't understand why I think the way I do. But this bubble idea can be reversed. I believe Oberlin has kept me from a narrow worldview--which is a sort of bubble as well. If I had gone to art school, to a writing conservatory, or into an engineering program, I would certainly be more skilled--but so much of the world would remain invisible to me.

I'm not in any position to comment on how a liberal arts education affects my chances in the workplace. I think it's clear that *any* degree--esp. one from a prestigious institution--doesn't hurt, but I do imagine there'd be more money straight out of college if I'd gone to a technical school.

Still, there are other rewards for me. I think the more thorough understanding of the world that I have been provided with gives me more power to navigate it and effect change. And I *feel* more conscious every day--which to me is personally fulfilling.

Posted by: Harris on October 8, 2010 12:39 PM

Personally? I'm an engineering student. But I definitely think that a liberal education is very important, irrespective of what your career pursuits are. At the same time, it's important to have a diverse and broad spectrum of subjects that you want to learn. Not everything is science and math =)

It gives you a wider perspective on life as a whole. Everything will become boring and bleak if it were to remain purely technical, or perhaps, vice versa.

Posted by: Shruthi on October 8, 2010 10:07 PM

Since the value of liberal arts education question tends to revolve around whether graduates are able to find jobs, the following anecdote may be helpful:

I just started a new position in finance. A few days into the job I found myself discussing exactly this question - whether employers value a liberal arts education - with my new boss. She said that while many people are seeking the qualities that a liberal arts education provides, they face a lot of risk in hiring people who have not already been trained for the job in their undergraduate studies (nobody ever got fired for buying IBM - or hiring a Wharton graduate). Nonetheless, employers are still receptive to hiring liberal arts grads because, as she put it, it's not too hard to find someone who can get the day-to-day work done in a competant manner, but a person who can critically analyze a situation and provide a unique perspective is really hard to come by.

So one way of looking at the value of a liberal arts education might be that in many highly competitive fields it can actually be a differentiator, though it may require finding a receptive employer. Personally, I believe the value goes far beyond monetizing the degree, and that it behooves anyone who chooses to undertake a liberal arts education to believe in the importance of understanding the world on principle.

Posted by: Lauren on October 9, 2010 10:30 AM

As a PhD neuroscientist as well as someone whose undergraduate experience was a liberal arts education, I would offer that, in my opinion, the purpose of the undergraduate education is not to prepare you for one option but to inform the person and expose one to the variety of options available beyond those four years. Therefore, I would argue that liberal arts degrees should be the norm and while options should exist for those with more focused aims, frankly, I would argue that creating more interesting people is preferable to producing additional scientists/doctors/lawyers/etc.

Posted by: Paul on October 9, 2010 10:43 AM

I'd second Harris's recommendation of DFW's commencement speech, and I'd also throw in a plug for Martha Nussbaum's book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. From a book review:

"Martha Nussbaum argues that the purpose of liberal education is to cultivate humanity. In her view, this is the same as educating for world citizenship. But, what does it mean to cultivate humanity? According to Nussbaum one cultivates humanity by developing three capacities. The first is the capacity for critical self-examination and critical thinking about one's own culture and traditions. The second is the capacity to see oneself as a human being who is bound to all humans with ties of concern. The third is the capacity for narrative imagination - the ability to empathize with others and to put oneself in another's place."

Posted by: Kate on October 9, 2010 2:21 PM

I found that a liberal arts education gave my creative side some academic grounding and credibility. I gained insight and inspiration and ways to see how creativity can fit into the more conventional classroom/workplace/world.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on October 11, 2010 3:12 PM

My oldest son has been studying economics at university in India for the last 5 months. From what he has gathered from his friends and the professors, virtually all institutions of higher learning in India are pretty vocationally oriented and there is no liberal arts curricula. He says that, while the people he has met are all very bright, they are very limited in what they know outside their area of study, and, more tellingly, they aren't curious about things outside their specific area of study. In addition, classes (at least in economics)are all lecture, 5 and a half days a week, with no discussion of principles, history, or theory allowed in class at any time.

Mind you, this is one field of study at one university in one south Indian city. But no one with whom he has spoken has indicated that it is different anywhere else. More than anything, he is aware that it is the liberal arts education he received prior to going to India that has made it possible for him to integrate himself well and enjoy his time there, despite the single focus of classes.

As others have said, far more eloquently, the liberal arts are about educating people to think and to be curious about the world around them. My sons' friends in India have, I think, been shortchanged in this regard. I do believe that there is a place for vocationally oriented education, particularly for those who have determined early their career path. For many, though, the liberal arts curricula is a way to learn where one's passions lie and also develop critical thinking skills, good writing habits, and a world perspective - all of which stand a person in good stead for a lifetime, no matter how many careers one has.

Posted by: Ruth on October 12, 2010 10:16 AM

Just wanted to add a little to this great conversation and great question from Ben. Its clear to me that a combination of the ever changing technical skills you need to survive in this world and a good solid liberal arts education is the way to go.

Posted by: Dan Chapman on November 2, 2010 10:41 AM