In his March 25 column, Courier Business Editor Jim Offner acknowledges traditional goals of a "well-grounded college education:" to expose students to great thinkers and to develop skills needed to answer perennial questions about human life. Nevertheless, Offner claims that employers’ demand for "highly specialized workers" makes the liberal arts degree impractical in today’s business environment. Students should pursue degrees in business management rather than in areas such as philosophy or German.
Unconvinced by Offner, we believe that higher education’s purpose is to further the development of persons by enhancing understanding of human intellectual and cultural accomplishments and by developing skills in the areas of critical thinking and writing. There is a profound difference, even an ethical difference, between viewing persons as recipients of education and as the subjects of training. As Martha Nussbaum argues in "Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities," the value of the humanities and arts to a nation is not their profit-making potential; rather, "they make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as people with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy."
Liberal arts majors in foreign languages and the study of religion well illustrate Nussbaum’s point: These majors build intercultural competence that is formative of individuals and is the necessary foundation of a robust democracy and strong economy. For example, in the absence of knowledge of the world religions and cultures, which furthers understanding and empathy while supporting cross-cultural communication, individuals risk jeopardizing economic and political partnerships that depend on cultural awareness and sensitivity.
As we affirm a long-established vision of higher education, we claim also that liberal arts majors are at a distinct advantage in today’s workplace. The philosophy major aptly illustrates our case. Scores on tests required for admission to the advanced study of law, management, medicine, and other graduate studies show:
Philosophy majors are No. 1 on the LSAT; business majors are No. 24 on the LSAT.
Philosophy majors outperform business majors by a margin of 15 percent on the GMAT.
Philosophy majors, on average, do better than all other majors on the GRE, LSAT, GMAT, and MCAT.
Moreover, a philosophy degree maintains its value over time. The president of Babson College (a business school in Massachusetts), has argued that, due to the pace of change, business skills acquired in the classroom expire in about five years. By contrast, he claims skills learned in liberal arts disciplines such as history and philosophy are long lasting and indispensable to business. Empirical data from PayScale’s annual survey of starting and mid-career salaries of college graduates by major underscore his point. At mid-career, philosophy majors have higher annual salaries than business management majors.
According to a recent article on the humanities published by the University of Colorado, liberal arts graduates are preferred by major companies. Marissa Mayer, a vice president at Google who studied philosophy and psychology at Stanford, reports that, of the 6,000 people Google hires each year, around 4,500 of them are liberal arts or humanities majors. Edward Rust, CEO of State Farm Insurance, shares Ms. Mayer’s preference for liberal arts majors. Rather than ask prospective applicants to demonstrate financial acumen in the hiring process, he hones in on their skills in critical thinking and oral and written communication.
Why do employers prefer to hire students with liberal arts majors? In a national research study of 2,300 college students, summarized in the groundbreaking book Academically Adrift, students majoring in business, education, social work and communications show the smallest gains over four years in critical thinking and analytic reasoning. The big winners in college are liberal arts majors who, over four years, show "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills."
Yes, our views on higher education are traditional; however; they also are founded on empirical research. On both counts, we demonstrate that now, as in the past, the liberal arts have an essential role to play in American higher education.