Intellectual life continues to be under assault in the United States of America. The main argument seems to be that a liberal arts degree simply is not a practical choice in today’s economy. For instance, an article I recently came across on a social media site lists several majors considered to be related to liberal arts such as philosophy, religious studies, anthropology, and the arts to be “hated” degrees while promoting more economically viable degrees such as health care administration, education (teacher training), business, and communications to be “loved” degrees (i.e. jobs which get graduates jobs) (Blundell, 2014, www.yahoo.net/articles/degrees_to_avoid_2.html). The argument that the article makes is that in economic hard times it is especially important to do “what is practical”, which would indicate that a student should be majoring in “practical” fields from the start of their higher education careers.
It is certainly true that certain majors make one more economically viable than others. In particular, if one is getting through a corporate human relations system, often controlled by computer keyword, it may be important for a student to have majored in the fields that the system wants.
What articles on the more “practical” side of academia often ignore, and arguably perhaps some in academia itself ignores, is the importance of skills to get jobs (Mulvey, 2011). Certainly, a student cannot do “whatever they want” with a degree, but practically, these students could potentially be successful in a variety of work provided that they have developed real, marketable skills alongside that liberal arts degree.
What a student has to do, therefore, is to acquire the skills they will need to be marketable as possible, preferably beginning in the first year of college/university. This can come through part-time work, internships, volunteer work, through student organizations, or even through research with faculty members. This should continue until the student actually has full-time work, whatever that may be.
While students bear the ultimate responsibility for the development of their skill levels, there are also things that faculty and institutions can do to help. For instance, “early intervention” in terms of major/career planning may help students to more successfully navigate the career process. While a liberal arts major coupled with marketable skills may not doom a student, an attitude that insists knowledge should be taken “for its own sake”, not as a lifetime pursuit, but as something to be done on a fairly full-time basis, even as an undergraduate student, is perhaps not helpful. Rather, specific steps need to be taken in order to prepare for a career. Even the “knowledge workers” themselves, if they actually consider their own careers, may be able to find specific skills such as grant writing and perhaps computing applications (given the move toward technology even in the humanities) that are vital to their careers. It is also important for career services to have a visible presence and to attempt to reach every student.
By encouraging students to take more of a 360 degree view of their majors/long term prospects, liberal arts colleges and universities with programs in such fields may be able to help students to become more “well rounded” applicants. A liberal arts education is supposed to be about the whole person. Encouraging students to balance “knowledge for its own sake” and practical, marketable skills allows students to become more well-rounded than they might otherwise be (if they pursued either “one or the other”), which will serve them well later on.
By utilizing such a goal, liberal arts schools and programs would gain a great deal of strength in their position. Instead of being labeled “impractical”, they can improve their brand by focusing on the total student. Likewise, applicants can also strengthen their position as they seek out careers and a good life.