The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

By Rick R. Marrs
Provost

The airwaves of contemporary society currently reverberate with extended and extensive noise; however, sadly lacking is sustained and meaningful dialogue. Sound bites have replaced nuanced conversation. The status and value of higher education, specifically a liberal arts education, is one topic on which talking heads regularly pontificate. Interestingly, seldom do pundits differentiate between intrinsic and extrinsic value; ironically, quantitative data is noticeably absent when discussing the extrinsic values of higher education degrees.

The presumed value of a degree in any field other than the traditional liberal arts carries a storied mythology. The lore asserts that graduates with degrees in the liberal arts are unemployable, have no marketable skills, and if employed, earn considerably less than their colleagues with professional degrees. This mythology and its underlying assumptions fascinate those trained in the liberal arts, since such premises and biases are precisely what liberal arts majors are trained to assess!

Initially, we might ask why extrinsic value necessarily trumps intrinsic value. From one vantage, those who truly understand the liberal arts argue that a liberal arts education ultimately is less about the content studied than the skills acquired to study that content. The liberal arts historically have engaged topics that are broad and diverse rather than narrow

and specialized. While the liberal arts associates with well-known discipline areas (the humanities, the social sciences, the creative arts, and the sciences), more often than not the skills associated with mastering those various disciplines are equally highlighted. A liberal arts education fails if after completion one cannot engage in analytical, evaluative, and critical thinking; problem solve; pose meaningful questions; produce compelling and reasoned oral and written arguments; and articulate the ethical implications of the topic studied. We experience daily the challenges and dangers of living in a global environment painfully deficient in awareness, knowledge, and sensitivity to the cultural norms, religious worldviews, and values of diverse societies. The liberal arts disciplines engage such timely and timeless issues. Put differently, a liberal arts education addresses what it means to be a responsible citizen.

To talk of such intrinsic values to higher education often simply confirms to those immersed in the extrinsic values of education and focused upon the pressing economic needs of graduates and their families that advocates of a liberal arts education are naively unaware of the daily realities of life. Interestingly, those focused primarily upon the economic value derived from a higher education degree largely ignore data that counters seeming obvious assumptions (e.g., engineers are more marketable than historians, a business degree provides the quickest route to corporate executive offices, etc.). While counterintuitive, recent statistical studies note that graduates with liberal arts training are not only employable, but they ultimately “out-earn” colleagues by mid-career. Perhaps more significantly, employers rate liberal arts majors highest in “meeting employers’ desires and expectations.” Corporate executives, when asked what they might do differently if they returned to college, state they would take more liberal arts courses. To quote Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce:

Employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate, and think critically … all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.

Rarely acknowledged in the public arena, although widely known, is that today’s graduates are entering a rapidly changing world that statistically affirms they will experience major career changes four
or five times during their professional lifetimes. Virtually unstated is that graduates with narrow specialization and training struggle far more significantly with these transitions than liberal arts majors who possess the transportable skills of critical thinking, nuanced analysis, creative synthesis, collaborative problem solving, and persuasive oral and written argumentation.

Finally, advocates of a traditional liberal arts education envision a world, nations, and communities that value not only the skills and intelligence associated with professional degrees, but degrees that value social intelligence, cultural intelligence, and emotional intelligence. In a rapidly changing world, societies desperately need educated citizens who are not only informed but have the skills to interrogate pressing issues, develop cogent and coherent solutions, and persuasively implement those solutions for social and ethical good. To state this in the language of Pepperdine, our world needs graduates whose lives are given to purpose, service, and leadership.

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