Business Magazine

The Liberal Arts? Don’t Bother

Posted on the 06 November 2011 by Sdelavergne

A few weeks ago, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott proposed cutting the funding for liberal arts programs in his state’s public universities.  His predictable argument, guaranteed to inflame those of us who know better, goes like this:  the only students worth hiring are science, technology and math grads; the liberal arts are frivolous.


Governor Scott isn’t the only one who thinks so.  Back in June, Bill Gates said roughly the same thing. In times of budget cuts, funding a liberal arts education doesn’t make sense.


On the other side of the argument, there are any number of articulate, impassioned liberal arts proponents describing the value of the education to society, business, and citizenship.  My own personal favorite is a TED talk in February of 2009 given by Dr. Elizabeth Coleman, President of Bennington College.


But I’m worried the Governor Scott perspective is gaining traction because on the surface his argument has a simplistic, practical appeal.  Job descriptions consistently ask for business or technical degrees.  No one, but no one, sees liberal arts grads as job-ready—even though they are.


What is to be done about that?


It’s one thing to point out, as Dr. Coleman does in her extraordinary speech, that the liberal arts produce the “broadest intellectual and deepest ethical potential,” but quite another to help the average guy envision how that potential translates into day-to-day business value.  Until we do that, until we let the liberal arts show off their practical use, they won’t shake their growing reputation as interesting but too luxurious for this day and age.  It’s why we rarely see business job descriptions that say “BA in history required” (except perhaps for a job as a museum curator), because the perception is that studying history is irrelevant in “the real world.”


But imagine for a moment a job description for, say, a Business Analyst or a Process Analyst that specifically lists among its requirements “B.A. in English, history, or philosophy preferred.”   Just imagine it!  And imagine this specification makes the list of required credentials because everyone who is anyone in the hiring business simply knows that humanities majors develop exceptional analytical skills.


Imagine for a moment a job description for, say, a Market Research Specialist that specifically lists among its requirements “B.A. or B.S. in the humanities or social sciences required” because the staffing person preparing this job description simply knows where to look for experienced researchers who are especially good at separating solid information from distortion and irrelevant detail.


Imagine it weren’t an uphill battle to explain the practical value of the liberal arts to every recruiter, every hiring manager, every parent, and every governor of Florida because it was already simply common knowledge that liberal arts grads are exceptionally well-prepared for jobs in business and, eventually, leadership—a revival, perhaps, of a popular opinion from times past.


One way to re-create a world where the liberal arts comprise a sought-after education is by instilling in students the idea that they’re becoming job- and leadership-ready.  It shouldn’t actually be hard to align liberal arts abilities with what businesses are seeking because business cares about only two things: increasing revenue and reducing expense.  It should be no secret (though apparently it is) that revenue improvements and expense reduction are directly linked to work performance in these areas:  analytical skills, competent writing and speaking, leadership abilities, research skills, managing qualitative information, planning and organizing, and creativity.  Look no further than the humanities and social sciences for people who can excel in all those areas.


If you think I’m suggesting compromising the education to achieve this—commercializing it or commoditizing it—I am not.  Leave the education exactly as it is, and simply make the connection between the education itself and how it can be put to use.


At the moment, the primary reason liberal arts students land jobs in business is because they are dogged enough to pursue opportunities, despite the stereotype about their prospects.  Career Centers, too, earnestly encourage liberal arts students to ignore what they hear and to believe they really are good enough to land paying jobs.  But a prevailing and credible voice in students’ lives, the people who actually teach the liberal arts and who know how useful it is, need to speak up more often.


“Yes, you will need to know how to write an essay in ‘the real world,’ and here’s why.”


“Yes, in ‘the real world’ you will need to know how to keep track of detailed information that’s somehow part of an amorphous blob you’ll be shaping into a cogent argument.”


“Yes, creativity and planning and public speaking are highly prized abilities in business, and you’re developing them.  Employers want people who can do what you are learning!”


If you do that, I’ll work on the hiring managers.

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