In the years since the Great Recession, we’ve heard much about the waning value of a liberal arts degree in today’s increasingly specialized job market. A liberal arts education is a risky choice, we’re often told, compared with safer options in business, IT and other technical fields.
As a labor economist and executive dean of the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, I believe this argument represents not only a failure to understand what a liberal arts education is, but also a misconception of the needs of the 21st-century economy.
The “liberal arts,” in classical antiquity, consisted of knowledge considered essential for active participation in civic life. The word “liberal” originates from the Latin root “liber,” meaning “free.” In other words, freedom to think, choose and live well requires an educated mind.
Today, our students are expected to master five foundational skills that capture the essence of a classical liberal arts education: the ability to question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively and live ethically. These are the attributes employers most want to see in college graduates.
Some might not realize the liberal arts encompass most of the STEM disciplines and provide unparalleled preparation for professional graduate school. Liberal arts majors achieve the highest scores on the LSAT, GMAT and MCAT. And humanities majors are the group most likely to be accepted to medical school.
There is more startling news for those who cling to the “myth of the English major,” who is doomed to a lifetime of marginal income. According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, while humanities and social science majors earn about $5,000 less in their first decade of employment, they ultimately outpace their professional peers in earning power by the time they reach their peak earning years.
Forecasters agree that technology-driven disruption is accelerating faster than they had predicted. About half the jobs of the near future do not yet exist, and about half of today’s existing jobs will disappear in less than 15 years. Even today, a college graduate can expect to have an average of five careers. This suggests that long-term professional success will require a portfolio that prepares students to make the most of their intelligence, creativity and curiosity.
Recently, the college’s online magazine spotlighted “20 under 40” alumni, including a U.S. diplomat, a sculptor who designs custom props for Broadway shows, a community college president, a product designer who works in cloud technology, a New York Times-best-selling author, a biomedical scientist who probes the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease, a Rhodes scholar, and three young entrepreneurs with the title of CEO.
I’m deeply impressed by how each of these young people illustrates the power of the liberal arts, which is one of the safest and most promising paths to life-long success. In fact, technology is far more likely to disrupt the employment opportunities of students who narrowly focus on a career. Our alumni have been—and will always be—our best proof of concept. The liberal arts, as originally defined, offer our students the freedom to invent, reinvent and live their best possible lives.•
Singell is executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of economics at Indiana University Bloomington