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A liberal arts education has tremendous value

An opinion piece by former College of Arts and Sciences Dean Pitman (published in the Buffalo News on April 12, 2015) which has sparked a national conversation.

“College isn’t worth the cost.” “A crisis in the humanities.” At least that is what we read in some newspaper headlines.

When I speak with parents about the college-choice decisions their family is making, their anxiety about the future job prospects for their son or daughter is obvious. Partly as a response, mom pushes Sally to become an engineer. Or to get a business degree.

Reading the headlines, encountering the parents, I find myself wondering: Is it really that bad for the liberal arts – the humanities, arts, sciences and social sciences?

The data suggest a different story. In survey after survey, employers say they look to hire workers who can analyze carefully, think creatively and communicate effectively – precisely the traits of a liberal arts graduate. A 2014 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities examined the earnings and career paths of students majoring in science, engineering, arts and humanities, social science and professional and preprofessional programs such as education and business. The findings demonstrate that majoring in the liberal arts fields – and in particular in arts, humanities and social sciences – leads students to successful careers in a wide range of professions.

Although engineering and business students usually earn more immediately after college, the study finds that, by the time of peak earnings, liberal arts students earn slightly more than those with professional and preprofessional degrees. Many liberal arts students go on to earn post-baccalaureate degrees, helping advance their careers. And the study reaffirms the long-observed finding that, no matter the major, college graduates earn about two-thirds more and have less than half the unemployment rate compared with those who have only a high school diploma.

Importantly in light of the current national conversation around income inequality, a 2012 joint report from the Departments of Treasury and Education highlights the role of higher education as an engine for upward socioeconomic mobility. So, moms and dads, all these economic indicators tell of a reality that is encouraging, not bleak.

As an aside to all those employers who say they want to hire creative young people with good communication skills – if these are the traits you want in employees, then take on the liberal arts student as an intern, even if she doesn’t have the accounting or Java skills you might also want. Take a chance and hire the media art student who has worked with a team to design and install learning spaces, even if he doesn’t have a formal training in engineering design. If we, as employers and hiring managers, want to encourage students to have a well-rounded educational background, we must be willing to hire them when they present with those skills.

Beyond the job prospects of the liberal arts student lie stories of social benefit and personal growth. Thomas Jefferson advocated a broad-based education (of course restricted at that time to white men), believing an educated populace strengthened the fledgling democracy he was helping birth. The Morrill Act, the 1861 law that created the nation’s land grant colleges and universities and is the genesis of some of the most applied technical and agricultural schools in the country, calls for scientific and classical studies, and promotes liberal as well as practical education. Today, land grant schools such as Berkeley, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State boast of excellent departments in the humanities and arts as well as in the sciences and engineering.

And then there is the very personal story of every liberal arts graduate. As a physics and math major in college, my first college experience was a large lecture course in Medieval History. I still remember that first lecture, and the last lecture of the semester, too, bookends of a fabulous journey from a Europe after the fall of Rome through the clusters of small principalities to the origins of the modern nation-state. In other courses I read books by 19th century British authors, studied macroeconomics and explored the U.S. political system. Friends and I reveled in an annual Northwestern Waa Mu production. As a graduate student, I was moved when I listened to the Christmastime performances of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Duke Chapel Choir. Although neither a performer nor a musician, I can nevertheless appreciate the talent of these productions and the creativity of the actors and musicians. To this day, history books and treatises on political figures and events fill my personal bookcase.

As I consider the future of liberal arts education, I think about the wonderful students I have come to know at the University at Buffalo. I think about the maturing of the singer who became interested in the science of voice production. I applaud the personal growth of the sophomore dancer, on stage under her first solo spotlight. And I am moved by the international student completing her degree – and dedicating it to her mother who, as a young woman, was forbidden by law to pursue an education. Those are a few of the stories that don’t make it into newspaper articles.

The Greek historian Plutarch tells us the mind is a fire to be lit. Lighting that fire is what a great liberal arts education is all about – challenging students to appreciate the genius of van Gogh, interpret Kant, measure the impact of human capital and calculate the predictions of quantum mechanics. A liberal arts education is the place to encounter new ideas and to experience a growth of mind and habit. In today’s world a liberal arts education prepares students to respond to challenges not conceived of just a few years ago – new questions about social responsibilities, viewing old problems through a new lens, respecting the cultures and mores of others. These are essential elements necessary to succeed on a small, flat, inter-connected globe. And these are the traits that make for a different set of headlines, the ones that read: “Why top tech CEOs want employees with liberal arts degrees.”

E. Bruce Pitman is a former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UB.