Defending a Liberal Arts Degree

A few years ago, I was at a party for my mom’s work. I was chatting with one of her coworkers when my recent graduation came up.

“Well, what did you major in?” her coworker asked.

“Linguistics!” I said, perky as can be, proud of my hard work.

“What will you be doing with that? Waitressing?”

What a jerk, right? Apparently not. I soon learned this soul-crushing kind of snark is pretty widespread: a classmate of mine once had someone turn to him shortly after graduation and say, “Know how to get an English major off your doorstep? Pay him for your pizza.” Ugh, makes my heart sink.

There exists a fairly common belief, for some reason, that a humanities or liberal arts degree can’t get you anywhere. People often struggle to defend the degree. Many say that it’s worth it because the humanities are “mostly about finding yourself.” However, in my opinion, “finding yourself” is a tough justification for that insanely expensive college tuition. If you really want to find yourself, you can travel, join WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), volunteer, or really do anything that allows you to interact with a wide range of different people. You’ll still be faced with situations that force you to grow emotionally and cognitively. However, if you want the added bonus of concrete skills and the college education to attract top-tier employers, a humanities or liberal arts degree could be a better fit: the advantages are worth the expense and time commitment of college. I currently work at a large, urban public institution, encouraging students to consider Linguistics, English and Philosophy as beneficial, lucrative areas of study, and these are the reasons I give them when they ask if it’s really worth it.

In the vast majority of classes one can take as a liberal arts major, there are several key questions that are constantly asked:

  • “Why does this matter?”
  • “Is this truth?”
  • “How does this actually work?”
  • “What are the layers of meaning?”
  • “What is this consciously trying to tell us, and what does it tell us unintentionally?”

Getting into the habit of asking those questions can make you a really valuable asset in any job because you have the ability to suss out how to prioritize, how you fit into an organization, and ways you can use your role to improve processes and relationships. Following through with the answers will make you a more efficient and impressive worker. Asking these questions before you’re asked to do so is super valuable. You then make intentional choices about how you want to interact with the world, and you understand how your choices affect not only yourself, but also the people around you.

In order to succeed in the humanities, the papers I wrote—and I wrote a lot of papers—were not about reporting the facts but about convincing the reader that my point of view held water. This means I had to learn to carefully gather my information, and present it in a coherent and digestible way. You will need to do this in every job you have: being able to do it well will impress your supervisors, but more importantly, it will make it easier for you to articulate what you want to do. As a result, you can achieve your goals more easily.

Because a liberal arts degree requires you to learn about a wide range of topics, you will likely end up being well-versed in a lot of different areas. This makes you an asset because you can connect with a wide range of people, you can speak articulately about a lot of different things, and (most of all) you can easily learn about things that you don’t already know about. If you need to build a new skill for work, the tools to do so are already in place! Learning how to learn is an oft-used catchphrase for liberal arts, but it’s the real deal.

College is about your ability to make more money and do more challenging or interesting things over the course of your life, not in the first job you get. Yes, it may be harder to find your first job if you major in the humanities (unless you use your career center at school, which alumni are also able to use for free and network like hell), but over the course of your life, you are in a better position to make interesting career choices and are more likely to continue on to graduate education.  You have the training to think critically about what you want and the contribution you are making to the world. Many of the critics who say that humanities majors can’t find jobs are flawed because they only look at data from students’ first jobs, not at the arc of their career. When longitudinal studies are done, it’s clear that liberal arts and humanities majors have more varied career paths, and make the same amount of money as or more than business and STEM majors 15 years out from their degree. In fact, a huge amount of the talk in the media about the struggling humanities is due to the fact that it is incredibly difficult to measure the success of anyone, let alone people who studied a particular field. There are too many variables, and not enough data, to even do things like measure the change in enrollments of a field. So, then, take the hysteria around how “no one can make it” with a pretty serious grain of salt.

Most likely, if you studied something in the humanities or liberal arts, you did it because you loved it. Goodness knows, it wasn’t because you wanted to come up with snide and snappy answers to “Why would you care about that?” When you have a genuine desire to learn, you pore through more books, ask more questions, are more likely to be BFFs with your profs, and ultimately, get more out of your studies. All the skills you acquired are magnified because you were honing them in an environment that brought you joy.

It’s important to think about your humanities degree as a springboard for the rest of your life. So boo to all the naysayers. If you love the humanities, they are worthwhile to study. Whether you dug deep in your early modern literary studies, investigating gender portrayals in botanical novels or, like me, you spent your undergrad career looking at miniscule acoustic differences in vowel systems and their development, flaunt it. It was, is and always will be worth it.

Photo by Michael Cox

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