You're Majoring In What?
Small-business owner Richard Deeran, father of American studies major Sam Deeran ’12, encouraged his three children to pursue degrees in engineering. But they all chose the liberal arts. For students of the liberal arts, especially those in less career-specific disciplines, the moment of declaring a major often marks the beginning of years of skepticism about the practicality of their education—and of hearing the dreaded question: “But what are you going to do with it?"
In these economic times, when jobs are scarce and positions are impermanent for seasoned professionals and recent college graduates alike, students are often asked to justify studying things like art history, classics, and philosophy—or, in Sam Deeran’s case, American studies and English. Recent studies show that people with degrees in engineering and computer science are the ones who will make the most money. But Colby alumni with all kinds of majors are working on Wall Street, writing books, researching in labs, developing software, teaching students, consulting on business deals, and editing magazines.
The liberal arts, it seems, teach you more than how to do one thing. They teach you how to do anything.
“The humanities, in their core, focus on those critical skills—critical thinking, and analysis, and synthesis—which are fabulous training for lots of different activities,” said Lori Kletzer, Colby’s vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty.
Not all agree. The liberal arts—even higher education in general—have been under fire in the media lately. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce recently released a study, What’s it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors, that correlates undergraduate college majors with average lifetime earnings. Students of the liberal arts and humanities will find themselves only “in the middle of the pack” in terms of their future earnings, according to the center’s press release.
But other media sources responded with stories about the liberal arts that were overwhelmingly positive. USA Today published a piece titled “Liberal Arts Lends an Edge in Down Economy.” NPR’s All Things Considered aired “Liberal Arts Degrees: An Asset at Some Companies” this January. The New Yorker’s feature “Live and Learn: Why We Have College” praised the liberal arts as “the gateway to the high-status professions.”
High-status professions like CEO of Apple Inc.? In his 2011 annual report, Colby President William D. Adams wrote about how Steve Jobs’s life illuminated the “value of the liberal arts.” Jobs talked about taking an elective calligraphy class before dropping out of Reed College. He said he applied the principles of proportion and form that he learned in calligraphy in the typefaces he designed into the first Mac decades later. He never received a degree from Reed, but his short time there demonstrates the allure of the liberal arts institution: academic exploration that cultivates interests unbeknown to the wide-eyed freshmen arriving each fall. “One of our chief purposes is to help students cultivate their imaginative and creative powers,” wrote Adams. “Like Steve Jobs, we too, in a somewhat different sense, are in the business of beauty.”
And cultivating beauty in our lives—not exclusively “economic value”—is what we should be focusing on, according to American Studies Professor Margaret McFadden. “What does it mean to have a good life? What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to be a good citizen?” asked McFadden, whose popularity among students earned her a coveted teaching award in 2001. “These are the kinds of questions that the humanities ask us to think about.”
“From my point of view, there’s not only the question of the economic benefit, but there’s also the question of what is good for you as a person who wants to have a happy life and relate to other human beings and raise happy children and all kinds of other things that people might want to do,” she said. “As a society, it seems to me at the moment we are very, very oriented towards economics. But, you know, that is not all of life.”