Actually, That Liberal Arts Degree Was a Good Idea

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Over and over again lately, I see high school students advised only to take on the financial and time investment of a four-year undergraduate education, particularly one in a liberal arts field, if they are very sure about their career goals and how the philosophy/English/art/whatever degree they want to pursue will directly feed into them.

I get where this advice is coming from. College is extraordinarily expensive, setting kids up with 20 years or more of monthly financial burden that they can ill afford without a good job. However, as someone who is still paying student loans for a private school undergraduate history degree, it’s just not the advice I’d go back and give my 17 year-old self when she was deciding what she was going to do after high school. With 15 years in the rearview, I’d tell my younger self to do it exactly the way she did.

Last April, Frank Bruni (BA in English from UNC Chapel Hill, by the way) suggested in the New York Times that the government and universities provide incentives to “steer students into the fields of study that will serve them and society best,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinion/sunday/bruni-the-imperiled-pro...). That is, direct them away from the uselessness of liberal arts (his article also makes use of the tired trope of the philosophy major barista) by giving better financial aid to those who make “better” major choices. I think he’s wrong, and that’s what I would tell my 17 year-old self.


Earning a liberal arts degree

When I decided to attend a private liberal arts school, and to make humanities my course of study (it was originally English, then political science, then American Studies, then history), I didn’t have a very specific goal in mind. Or, rather, I had lots of them. I intended, at various times, to be a journalist, a lawyer, a book publisher, a professor…you get the idea. I just wanted to be well-educated; I didn’t necessarily know, or even care, in what career direction that education would take me.

I’m sure this attitude would horrify Bruni and his cohort, but it has served me really well. My meandering career hasn’t included any of the fields I thought I’d get into, but it has included various forms of professional writing, project management, non-profit research, work in higher education administration, and a (much more ill-advised than the original BA) masters degree. Aside from my current (short, in the relative scheme of things) unemployment, I’ve never been unable to support myself or make my student loan payments. While none of my jobs have specifically required that I have the history degree I hold, I’d argue that my undergraduate education helped to prepare me for all of them. Over and over, I have benefited from the critical thinking, analysis, comprehension, writing, and editing skills I honed during my time as a liberal arts undergraduate.

I don’t think I’m as much of an outlier as the popular conception of the underemployed humanities graduate would have me believe. Looking back at the fellow liberal arts graduates of 2001 that I know personally, I find a taxonomist, a professor, a couple of lawyers, a commercial buyer, a casting director, two marketing executives, a teacher, a nurse, a corporate insurance agent, and a development director. Have some of us had a rough path to get to our current professional state? Sure. Are we still paying student loans? Probably. But that doesn’t differentiate us from our STEM major counterparts.

Bruni claims that going to college is not a “guarantor of a certain quality of life.” That’s certainly true, but it’s true for everybody, not just those of us who go the way of humanities. I don’t know anybody, regardless of what they studied, who hasn’t had some bumps along the road to establishing themselves professionally.

It isn’t enough for me, though, to tell my pre-college self that she won’t be harmed by the liberal arts degree she wants to work towards. I’d tell her she’ll be helped. In fact, I’d tell her it will be the single most powerful and mind-expanding opportunity she’ll ever have, and she should grab it with both hands. That goal of being a well-educated person, regardless of what it does or does not do for my professional or economic success? Fifteen years later I still think that’s a valid ambition, and I am still extraordinarily thankful for the broad-based humanities education I got as an undergraduate.

Grace on campus

The line between reading the classics and learning to write a persuasive paper and professional and personal success may not be clear to many of the current crop of liberal arts education naysayers, but it’s crystal clear to me. I would simply not be who I am without the education I got. If I could go back, I’d thank my idealistic 17 year-old self for not listening to the likes of Bruni. She was right.

This post is part of BlogHer's Success Tips For My Younger Self editorial series, made possible by Kaplan.

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