In Defense Of A Liberal Arts Degree

They might be getting overshadowed by STEM degrees in the news, but liberal arts degrees have a lot to offer their students.

As I write this, high school seniors across the land are giving each other triumphant fist bumps, bursting into tears, or casting thanks or blame toward all those who played a role in their college acceptances—or rejections. If one of them is your child, you have about a month to figure out where to send that deposit check.

I’m certain you've already heard plenty of advice about the type of school your child should attend and what he or she should major in while there. If you weren't familiar with the term STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—before the college process started, you certainly are now. And I suspect you've heard at least one joke about the earning potential of philosophy majors.

At a time when student debt exceeds $1 trillion and around four in 10 recent college grads are unemployed or underemployed, it makes a lot of sense to choose an educational path that leads directly to a high-paying career. STEM majors such as biomedical engineering, cybersecurity, and actuarial science seem like the safest bets.

I’d like to propose a counterargument, however, to those students who are drawn to the liberal arts—who want to study the dead poets, expand their minds with a classical core curriculum, and major in a subject that doesn't culminate in a professional certification: Do it.

I know a lot of liberal arts graduates. I have hired a bunch of them. And I am one myself, having studied both psychology and art history. What I have found is that people with degrees in subjects such as history and literature—and, yes, even philosophy—tend to possess many of the qualities, skill sets, and aptitudes that are in highest demand in my own industry (marketing communications) and in others that rely on creative thinking and foresight.

In my experience, these are the areas in which liberal arts graduates really stand apart:

Agility and adaptability

With the business world in a perpetual state of flux, companies have to continually reinvent themselves or risk being left behind. This means we need talent who are capable of reinventing themselves, as well—men and women who are mentally agile and relentlessly curious.

Unlike our parents and grandparents, many of whom started at a company and progressed up a linear ladder, today’s workers will move from job to job, company to company, and even industry to industry. This means they’ll need to forever be adding skills and learning about things that haven’t even been imagined yet. Liberal arts graduates' ability to research, analyze, spot patterns and connections, and apply that learning in unexpected ways will serve them well.

Around a year ago, I surveyed more than 100 senior business leaders to get their views on the current state of talent and talent management. Eighty-four percent of them agreed that they would rather hire a person who is smart and passionate, even if the person does not yet possess the specific skills they need. One point of which we can all be certain is that the skills in use today won’t be sufficient to meet the needs of tomorrow. What matters is knowing how to accumulate knowledge and put it to smart use.

Storytelling and persuasion

Now that we've moved from the industrial age into a globally connected ideas economy, knowledge, information, and creative innovation are the new building blocks of success. This adds enormous value to the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively. It’s not enough to have a brilliant idea; you need to be able to work with others to develop it into something tangible, and you need to be able to sell it within your company and beyond. A strong liberal arts curriculum tends to impart the ability to weave carefully crafted stories. That skill is no less important in the world of modern business than it is when you’re trying to ace "Narcissus and the History of Reflection" at Swarthmore or "Contemporary American Fiction" at UCLA.

Historical consciousness

The humanities and social sciences provide a context that helps us to understand not only what is happening in the world, but what is likely to happen—and why. Or as Shakespeare put it: "What’s past is prologue."

In rapidly changing industries and markets, we need people who can grasp the big picture and anticipate what is coming and its likely effects. Businesses filled with people who are wholly ignorant or unmindful of the past are operating with only partial vision. And that’s not something any of us can afford.

My last bit of unsolicited advice to those heading off to college: Don’t overspecialize. Take advantage of every opportunity to add to your repertoire of skills and store of knowledge. Maximize your career potential by being a hybrid. Combine theoretical studies with practical applications, including internships. Study the Socratic method but also learn to code or make deft use of the latest social media tools. When you leave those ivied walls behind and enter the job market, it shouldn't be as a stranger in a strange land.

Andrew Benett is global CEO of Havas Worldwide and author of The Talent Mandate: Why Smart Companies Put People First Follow him on Twitter @andrewbbenett.

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5 Comments

  • You know how all the major Chinese companies are recruiting liberal art students from America to provide "people-skills" in their work force of top-tier engineers and math students? No? No.

  • It's more about the person than it is the degree. It doesn't matter what you major in if you're awesome. Also the arguments presented in this article merely advocate the benefits of a liberal arts major, unless it's implied that STEM graduates don't have these capabilities.

  • Jeanna Nixon

    Add to this list critical thinking, complex problem solving, and applied knowledge in real-world settings. A recent survey backs up this argument, finding that most employers value the transferable skills a liberal arts education offers. You can read more about it here: http://col.st/Hu9lLe

  • Tony Romano

    A Liberal Arts/Humanities grad myself, I've always held this to be true.

    My reasoning then (same as today): you have a whole lifetime to learn "business"--and that's pretty much learn-as-you-go anyway! Why not spend those vital college years learning about what you really enjoy? Vivat artes liberales!