April 24, 2017
You’re majoring in what? Making the case for a liberal arts degree
Choosing a major is a pretty big decision. After all, what you select to study can set you onto a path you may continue following for your entire working life. With that in mind, there’s an additional bit of pressure on students who are considering earning a liberal arts degree.
Lately, many public figures are pushing the importance of Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) education. With that comes a bit of implied distaste for majors that don’t fit into that bucket. So what should someone whose heart is set on becoming an English major do? What about art history? Is it time to give up and embrace the world of engineering?
Before you start letting your dreams fall to the wayside so you can brush up on your math skills, we have some information you’ll want to hear. The truth is that there is still value in earning a liberal arts degree.
To help make the case, we enlisted a panel of hiring managers to share their thoughts about liberal arts majors and the value they bring to an organization.
For most people, liberal arts is somewhat of an ambiguous term. There are a lot of subjects covered under the umbrella of this degree field. Simply put, liberal arts includes majors focused on arts, languages, history, philosophy and cultural studies.
These areas of study have a long history with roots stretching back to the Greek Classical Period. During that time, the skills and subjects taught were viewed as essential for a free person to engage in civic life. With this came a heavy focus on rhetoric, logic and grammar — all of which still serve as a foundation for many modern liberal arts subjects.
Will having a liberal arts degree disqualify me from certain jobs?
“Absolutely not,” says human resources coordinator Brad Steltz. “The type of degree should never hinder the hiring process. An individual’s drive, skillset and job history are better markets to gauge how well they may do in any given position.”
It’s easy to understand the apprehension about pursuing a liberal arts degree, given the emphasis placed by many on technical degrees. But when it comes down to finding the right candidate, many hiring managers are willing to be a lot more flexible than you’d expect, even for technical positions.
That said, this doesn’t make you a shoe-in for a technology job if you have a fine arts degree — you’ll still need to demonstrate your ability to do the job. But as the job market continues to improve, more employers struggling to fill positions are willing to train the right candidates and get their technical skills up to par.
There are a lot of appealing attributes in job candidates with a liberal arts background. Here are some of the most common qualities hiring managers and business leaders appreciate about these individuals:
Businesses and organizations are often growing and evolving, and liberal arts majors are well-suited for adapting to new job demands. This can be particularly appealing for certain organizations.
“A liberal arts degree is especially important in a start-up environment because you are looking for people who are able to learn new skills rather than regurgitate information from a textbook,” says AJ Saleem, founder of Suprex Learning.
“An individual with a liberal arts degree typically has very polished communication skills and knows how to work through an argument or conflict with poise and purpose,” Steltz says.
There’s a lot of value in being able to respond to work situations in a calm, articulate and diplomatic way. With rhetoric and grammar being pillars of liberal arts education, these employees are typically able to navigate difficult work situations with clear and thoughtful communication.
One AAC&U national survey found that 93 percent of business and non-profit leaders think critical thinking and problem solving skills are more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major. Most jobs that require a college degree will require some amount of critical thinking in the day-to-day work.
A liberal arts education sharpens this skill by requiring students to know how to separate fact from opinion, identify biases and ask appropriately probing questions.
“Many people can do what they are told, but who is best prepared to find new opportunities and solutions that the boss never assigned?” asks Patrick West, founder of Be The Machine. “An employee with a liberal arts degree should be able to assess situations and offer solutions on a wide variety of challenges.”
The ability of liberal arts students to assess new, challenging information and plot a way forward when facing the unknown can be incredibly valuable. Technical skill is great when given solid boundaries or parameters to work within, but those whose skillsets don’t span much further than their technical capabilities can struggle without clear direction. That direction can often be provided by people trained to think critically about challenging concepts.
While creativity isn’t the sole focus of every liberal arts degree, students with this background are well-suited for creative thinking and problem solving. Steve Jobs once described creativity as just connecting things. The broad base of knowledge many liberal arts majors possess provides ample opportunities to make connections and approach issues from different perspectives.
Some, like Mark Cuban, even believe creativity will grow in value as automation technology advances and the nature of employment shifts to accommodate less task-oriented work.
Every degree choice has its pros and cons. But our experts agree that you shouldn’t let that paralyze your decision-making process or prevent you from committing to an academic pursuit you’re truly passionate about.
If you’re ready to reap the rewards of a liberal arts degree, take a look at the robust collection of programs the College of St. Scholastica has to offer. Still feeling unsure? Read more by visiting our article, “Is a liberal education is still relevant? Research says ‘Yes!’”
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