Liberal arts or something more ‘practical’?

Amanda Siegel  |  5 min read

It is common for people to question the value of a liberal arts education. Some believe that rather than the traditional liberal arts curriculum, more practical skills should be taught in college. Headlines such as “We’re so well-educated — but we’re useless” have become common. There is concern that our future leaders will not have the necessary skills to guide us to great things — or even to simply get jobs after they graduate.

For example, technology is everywhere. In fact, it is so common that “wearable technology” is now a category on Amazon. Shouldn’t we teach computer programming or computer repair to all students in the United States? Maybe everyone should be taught the language and culture of currently emerging economies? If we don’t do these things, how will we remain a global superpower? How will the economy improve? The list of questions and concerns goes on and on.

The approach of prioritizing such specific skills is misguided and almost guaranteed to fail. While these skills are, without a doubt, important for those out “competing” in the global economy today, they may not be tomorrow (at least, not in the same way). Things change. Rather than playing the guessing game of what skills will be required in the years to come, we should focus on higher-level abilities: learning to think, reason, write, present arguments, and so on. These skills always have been and always will be important. We don’t need to guess whether they will be of value in the future.

In his recent book “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth states, “Liberal education intertwines the philosophical and rhetorical so that we learn how to learn, so that we continue both inquiry and cultural participation throughout our lives because learning has become part of who we are.” Isn’t that what we want for our students?

Some argue that liberal arts education leads to innovation. For example, Tony Golsby-Smith, writing in the Harvard Business Review, stated that the most innovative thinkers come from the humanities and that “people trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings, say, have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.”

For those who need proof, consider studies such as the one reported in Inside Higher Ed, in which (after a slower start) liberal arts majors out-earn those with professional or pre-professional degrees.

Should we believe those in academia with evidence supporting a liberal arts education? What do those in the “real world” think?

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer and perhaps the greatest innovator in many years, said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” In his well-known 2005 Stanford University commencement address, Jobs told the story of how his study of calligraphy at Reed College was influential in the development of the Apple Macintosh — an anecdote that points out that the practical application of learning is not always immediately apparent.

So, the next time you wonder if liberal arts are practical, look up Apple Computer on your iPhone, iPad or MacBook and decide if they have produced anything of value.

This piece originally appeared in The Providence Journal