Questioning the value of a liberal arts degree is not uncommon these days when good jobs are scarce and a liberal arts degree does not provide much training for a job. From a raw, statistical viewpoint, however, its value in the workplace is clear enough.
Recent figures from the Department of Labor gave the median annual salary for full-time employees in 2012: with no high school diploma $22,900; with a high school diploma, $30,000; and with a bachelor’s degree, $46,900. In that year, 73 percent of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with a liberal arts degree had full-time employment while only 60 percent of those with a high school diploma worked full time.
With the need for jobs a high priority, we hear more about requirements for advanced job training. These requirements are shaped by the fact that higher degrees of training and technical capability are needed now for better-paid employment. In the current atmosphere of restricting government funding as much as possible, we hear arguments for introducing more practical job training into college education. An ignorance of, and disdain for, a liberal education was recently expressed publicly: “Liberal arts in college is what you pick when you don’t know what to do with yourself.”
We do in fact need more and better training in today’s work force, but it would be a serious mistake to offer that training at the expense of a liberal education. The basis of the modern liberal arts was first codified in the Roman trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) more than 2,000 years ago. Note the breadth of this early learning, which included all elements of literature, arts and science. The teaching of the liberal arts has been conspicuously present and intimately involved during the emergence of ever higher forms of human culture and society, especially during the cultural reawakening of the Renaissance. Why is this so?
A major reason stands out. Useful human inventions for successful communal living need to be stored in the greater social “mind” to be built upon by future generations. Early on, this heritage was passed on by music, art, dance and telling of stories. Communicating these traditions required language, art and, later, writing skills. When the contributions of science entered the picture, new forms of quantitative reasoning, measurement and communication were introduced. A liberal education today embodies what is known about the many aspects of human communal endeavors. It does this by exposure to the main areas of human knowledge and culture with a historical perspective. That is why a bachelor’s degree requires students to take courses widely in the humanities, social sciences and sciences with only a preliminary concentration in an area of personal interest, a major, in the junior and senior years.
A liberal arts education is about our cultural inheritance and uses of the intellect to understand and advance it. For young people, this is mostly just studying and memorizing for exams. But, stored away in their minds, this accumulation of knowledge has done a most remarkable thing: It has opened the long-term window of their consciousness to a much wider awareness of the intricacies, issues and beauties that will be encountered ahead. That knowledge, securely stored in young minds, will grow throughout their lives, providing a framework of reference that encourages a much wider range of interests as the events and relationships of their lives unfold.
Aroused interests will often lead to curiosity and further exploration. And those explorations will profit from the intellectual skills and respect for learning practiced during the liberal arts years. Liberal arts education thus provides a factual foundation and better interpretive skills for continuously expanding the knowledge that facilitates further accomplishment. Unlike the process of training for a particular work skill, exposure to those liberal arts provides basic mental skills for almost any job. These very practical differences between the broadening effects of a liberal education and the technical focusing required for job training should never be confused.
Robert W. Merriam, Ph.D., of Chapel Hill is a retired science professor from SUNY Stony Brook.