Liberal arts degrees still have a place – but only if they’re “real” degrees

I was struck by this article at CNBC, not only for its positive points, but for what it misses.  It’s a case of “close, but no cigar“.

By investing in liberal arts graduates, we gain people with human-centered skills who can approach problems in entirely new ways, contributing to out-of-the-box thinking in a digital age.

Liberal arts graduates bring a depth and breadth of knowledge from across the humanities and social sciences that complement the hard skills of engineers and data scientists. And in a world that increasingly interacts with technology in every facet of daily life, it’s increasingly important that technology reflects the world around us.

When a customer visits a website or withdraws money from an ATM, we need technology that not only works but works for the user. How do the people of the world interface with the technology they use every day? Is it user-friendly? Visually pleasing? These questions, and so many others, are not nice-to-haves. They’re critically important to the success of technological endeavors, and they are answered in the affirmative only when a diverse group of individuals designs it in the first place.

. . .

We know liberal arts students know how to learn. Now all they need is the opportunity. That’s why we need a nationwide model of workforce development that recognizes private enterprise must play the leading role in embracing workforce transformation. As employers, we can provide the training and tools necessary to build the workforce of the future. By broadening the aperture on the candidates we recruit to include students with a high “learnability index,” we can solve the talent crisis and improve our products and services at the same time.

There’s more at the link.

What the author appears to miss, almost completely, is the original purpose of a liberal arts degree.  It was supposed to provide an education rather than vocational training;  to broaden the mind, to teach students critical thinking, and to enable them to assess different disciplines – history, language, art, etc. – in the context of a broad view of human civilization as a whole.  The initial degree was deliberately designed to take in multiple disciplines.  Only in post-graduate degrees did the student focus on one particular field of study.  My Bachelor of Arts degree had English and History majors, economics and philosophy as sub-majors, and several other subjects.

I’ve always been grateful to my parents for their insistence that my first university degree should be focused on education, rather than training.  (Confused over the difference?  My dad explained it by asking, “When you have children, do you want them to receive sex education or sex training at school?”  That summed it up very clearly, IMHO!)  Time enough, they assured me, to focus on specialization once I had an education – but unless I got that education first, I’d never have the opportunity again, because the higher education system makes it very hard to turn back from a narrow path of study into a broader one.  I certainly found that true when I switched career paths from business to religion, and studied to become a pastor.  By then I had three university qualifications, and starting over at Bachelors degree level was tricky, to put it mildly – I had to get my head out of the business and technology “focus” and back into a broader perspective.

The trouble is, today’s liberal arts faculties are so politically correct and academically wishy-washy that I’m not sure they’re worth much at all.  There are obvious exceptions, of course.  I’m very taken with Thomas Aquinas College in California;  it’s the kind of institution I wish I could have attended.  If I had children, I’d strive with might and main to send them there.  Hillsdale College in Michigan also looks very interesting.  However, they’re the exceptions that prove the rule as far as the broad mass of liberal arts faculties are concerned.  Classes promoting sexual deviance of every possible description (and a few that aren’t physically possible at all, as far as I can tell);  courses in subjects that aren’t so much esoteric as idiotic;  and an intolerance for all except the most inclusive, most politically correct claptrap, seem to mark too many liberal arts institutions these days (cough*Oberlin*cough – also see here).

So, yes, I absolutely agree that liberal arts education has a very important place in today’s society, in business as well as everywhere else.  The important thing is to make sure that it really does cover the liberal arts, and it really is an education.  Absent those guarantees . . . it’ll be worthless.



  1. Liberal arts degrees were meaningful maybe 60 or 70 years ago. They are complete crap today. From the day that the schools bought into the "Frankfurt School" criminal BS, liberal arts became worthless nearly overnight.

    Only when the Frankfort school and the whole German Romanticism/Marxist crappola is purged from Western society will liberal arts become meaningful again.

  2. I'm sorry, but spending thousands of $$ at 4-year schools that amount to Commie "re-education centers", the obscene tuition charges by schools with billion dollar asset funds, makes no sense.
    Fer Chrissakes, AOC is supposed to have an economics degree from Boston College! I don't blame the school for her insanity/politics, but her lack of knowledge in the subject she's degreed in is stunning….

  3. Having worked in higher ed, I can tell you that, at least in my experience, there are no liberal arts degrees of they type you mention. I went through the system nearly 40 years ago and there was no such animal at either institution I attended, either.

    I eventually got smart and switched over to a business major, concentration in information technology. That degree provided a good life for my family and myself.

    Interestingly enough, I got the liberal arts ideal of "learning how to learn" in high school. It hadn't went to hell at that point in time.

  4. I've an under graduate degree in Accounting and an MBA. I had a family and needed to support them. I remember very little of much of what I was taught. I do recall, however, how pleased my mother was when I took a class in Astronomy. She dismissed most of my other classes as mere training; the Astronomy class "was education." (and still one of the best classes I ever took.)

  5. The description of people who specialize in designing "interfaces with technology" has another name: Human Factors Engineering, usually performed by trained engineers. The best Human Factors Engineers also have real world experience operating technological systems. Not sure what happened with the Boing MAX series, aircraft designers are usually fanatic about human factors, after all the record of their mistakes is written in blood.

  6. I have worked for several employers over my career which is close to an end with retirement. In my experience, the amount of training employers do has been decreasing rapidly to nothing. They don't want to spend money on it.

  7. Peter,
    Would you consider talking to Vox about teaching on unauthorized tv? Provide a booklist and a syllabus, please. I will be glad to subscribe.

    Nuke Road Warrior: Yep. Engineers who talk to the operators and service technicians have the best input coupled with results. Form follows function.

  8. But then again, 'Liberal' used to mean what we now call 'libertarian' or 'centrist republican.'

    Meaning 'a little bit of everything.'

    Now 'Liberal' means either somewhat left of 'complete international socialist' or supporting of ideas so whack it makes Scientology look positively stodgy.

    Which people having 'liberal arts' degrees should, but don't understand.

  9. And here's my idea of a new standard of Bachelor's Degree.

    2 years of math, to include at least Intermediate Calculus.

    2 years of hard science, the same classes that STEM students take. No more 'Freshman remedial math' counting as a real college class towards graduation.

    2 years of English and English language studies (like, oh, writing and advanced composition (one of the classes I took at an eng. college was 'English for Engineers' and it was a major weed-out course.

    2 years of History – real history, not retconned history. Can't understand why things were done 'back in the day' unless one understands 'back in the day.'

    2 years of Humanities. Art appreciation, architecture, liturature from foreign lands, that type of stuff.

    Well, that's pretty much Freshman and Sophomore, or a 2 year degree. Which should be awarded at the end of 2 years, whether you go to a 2 year school or 4 year school.

    Then one can spend the next 2 years concentrating on one's major.

    Like what should have been all along, but never was, at liberal arts schools…

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