In Defense Of A Liberal Arts Education

“You’re getting a degree in English? What are you going to do with that?”

This is my favorite question because it gives me the chance to use the more colorful aspects of my vocabulary. This article will seek to do a couple of different things, but primarily I hope it opens up a discussion about the point of education and what exactly an educated person is.

For full disclosure, I should admit that I consider myself a very educated person. I hold an advanced degree in English and am currently in an MS program. I don’t consider myself necessarily smarter because of these experiences, but I can’t deny my education.

And I would appreciate it very much if people stopped asking me about how I plan on using my degree.

I understand. We live in tough economic times. Unemployment, while it’s gone down recently, is still relatively high. People my age are having a rough time finding jobs and keeping them. I understand why someone might be curious about how I plan on using my degree.

The thing is, a degree like mine isn’t really meant to be “used.” I’ll rephrase that a little. My degree in English isn’t useful. Now, before all my liberal arts readers explode, let me clarify.

As someone who has gone through a liberal arts education, I’ve learned to let other, more experienced people speak for me. In “The True End of Education,” Emerson White writes:

Two extreme theories are earnestly contending for the control of American education.  The one asserts that the sole end of school training is the perfection of man as an intellectual, aesthetic, and moral being; and the other asserts that the supreme test of the worth of education is its practical unity in life’s business and toil.  The watchword of one is culture; of the other unity. (65)

Does this sound kind of accurate of today’s attitudes toward education and the education process? It does to me. White wrote this in 1892.

One type of education focuses on utility. The other focuses on being. My degree in English has little utility. This is because the program was designed to change me and not just give me skills. Most liberal arts graduates have skills, but these skills are mostly intangible: more efficient critical thinking, the ability to deconstruct arguments, strong interpersonal communication, effective problem-solving. I use the word “intangible” here to indicate that these skills can’t really be tested. I can’t give a quiz on interpersonal communication and accurately assess someone’s ability to communicate based on that test alone. I’m not going to argue that these kinds of skills are more valuable or essential than “tangible” skills. For one, I would find that conversation unproductive. For two, I don’t think that’s true. I would be hard-pressed to argue that plumbers, electricians, carpenters, construction workers, and mechanics aren’t essential to our society’s survival. No one has time for Shakespeare when their toilet is clogged.

Because of tough economic times, though, these intangible skills and the programs that provide them are often seen as non-essential by universities and society at large. So their budgets are slashed and some programs are outright cancelled. It’s no wonder then that liberal arts programs feel the need to defend themselves. They do so by elevating the nature of what they do and attempting to diminish the worth of vocational programs. Liberal arts programs are the bastions of culture, they say. Then they add some more abstract language to push their point home. I do agree with that first statement, but I know some people don’t.

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At my graduation, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts said, “We have not taught our graduates to do something. We have taught them to do anything.”  The words have stayed with me. Most jobs require not just tangible or hard skills, but the intangible, soft ones as well.

A liberal arts education is not about doing something. It’s about being something. It’s about enriching your life despite the kind of work that you do. Most importantly, I think, it’s about defining yourself instead of letting your job define you. We live in a time when people are concerned with money and the jobs that will allow them to get it. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of mentality. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a regular income and financial stability. If that’s all you want from an education, then maybe a vocational school is the right choice. Be a carpenter, a city planner. A major in science or math might have more utility than one in liberal arts. Be an engineer or learn computer science. Being useful and visibly helpful are not bad things to be.

This is kind of my point.  I’m tired of the debates about why people should go to school. To me, people need to find their own reasons for continuing or not continuing their education. I’m tired of the arguments about what kinds of degrees are most valuable. The truth is that they’re all valuable.  Perhaps you find this line of thought too equivocating, but stick with me. My English degree is not going to help unclog my toilet. Similarly, a knowledge of plumbing is not going to help me communicate with people. In the end, it’s not just about the education you pay for. It’s about the experiences that come with it.

So instead of asking me what I plan on doing with my English degree, ask me what I’ve already done.

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Thoughts? Tweet us @litdarling.

View Comment (1)
  • From one English (AND PHILOSOPHY!) grad. to a fellow scholar:

    Delivered by Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States in 1909:

    “The object of liberal training is not learning, but discipline and the enlightenment of the mind. The educated man is to be discovered by his point of view, by the temper of his mind, by his attitude towards life and his fair way of thinking.

    “He can see, he can discriminate, he can combine ideas and perceive wither they lead; he has insight and comprehension.

    “His mind is a practised instrument of appreciation. He is more apt to contribute light than heat to a discussion, and will oftener than another show the power of uniting the elements of a difficult subject in a whole view; he has the knowledge of the world which no one can have who knows only his own generation or only his own task.

    “What we should seek to impart in our colleges, therefore, is not so much learning itself as the spirit of learning.

    “You can impart that to young men; and you can impart it to them in the three or four years at your disposal.

    “It consists in the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, in the power to digest and interpret evidence, in a habit of catholic observation and a preference for the non-partisan point of view, in an addiction to clear and logical processes of thought and yet an instinctive desire to interpret rather than to stick in the letter of the reasoning, in the taste for knowledge and the deep respect for the integrity of the human mind.

    “It is citizenship of the world of knowledge, but not ownership of it.”

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