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The Liberal Arts: Slow Boat on a Long Voyage

Posted on the 02 May 2011 by Sdelavergne


   At Whittier College last week, Director of Career Planning and Internships Linda Ross told me a scary story, the kind of story I can picture liberal arts students sharing around a campfire after all the marshmallows are roasted.  It goes like this:

   Fifty graduate students at a nearby university, pursuing master’s degrees in something like “Student Affairs,” came to visit Whittier to learn about campus life at a small liberal arts college.  As a level-setting introductory question, Linda asked the 50 students how many of them knew what the liberal arts were.  Only four raised their hands.

   “I majored in the humanities,” one said.  “Isn’t that one of them?”

   I don’t know about you, but that story scared me, and it obviously grabbed Linda’s attention.

   “I think the problem,” Linda concluded, “is that people need a better awareness of what the liberal arts are!”


   Whittier College is good training territory for the confused grad students, because it’s “very dedicated to the essence of the liberal arts,” as Linda describes it, teaching students to see things from various perspectives and to deepen their understanding of events, relationships, culture.  A Whittier graduate earns a bachelor’s in the liberal arts, not in English, history, sociology or math, but in the liberal arts.  Yes, they major in something (including a design-your-own major, offered by just a few schools), but the degree is in the liberal arts.

   All the more reason to make sure students “understand the value they bring to organizations,” Linda says.  “Our students are highly trainable” for a variety of jobs, but persuading recruiters—whom she describes as “narrowly focused”—how valuable this is is a challenge. 

   You have to wonder why hard-working students steeped in a vigorous curriculum are such a hard sell.  Who wouldn’t want an employee who’s learned to think, argue, write, calculate, create and remember?  How many entry-level jobs are there—really—that an exceptionally educated young person couldn’t learn to do pretty quickly?

   In the meantime, Linda advises “You must have practical experience” to offer along with the exceptional education.  Internships—an obvious choice—and any part-time work experience will help recruiters envision the potential. Towards this end, many departments at Whittier develop internships, ways of applying the academic learning to practical post-collegiate opportunities.  They also have a long history of offering “paired classes” as well, classes which cross disciplines (for example, something like cultural studies and economics) to prepare students to bring together and use what they’ve learned in real-world situations.

   Fortunately, the liberal arts education often (usually) pays off in the long run.  It’s the short run that poses the immediate problem.  As Jonathan Veitch, President of Occidental College, said not long ago, “A liberal arts education is a slow boat to a better job.”

   The idea of a slow boat on a long voyage may seem like an unaffordable luxury if you find yourself staring down a sizeable student loan balance.  But being prepared for the variety of challenges, thanks to the rigorous preparation of a liberal arts education, will position you for income-generating opportunities for decades to come. 

   And if there are 50 graduate students wandering around the LA area who don’t get it, and who-knows-how-many recruiters who aren’t sure either, that’s all the more reason those of us who DO get it aren’t shy.  Liberal arts students are better prepared to work, think, analyze, plan, organize and lead than students pursuing any other kind of education or major. 

   There.  I said it.

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