Why I Value My Liberal Arts Degrees

November 22
Why I Value My Liberal Arts Degrees -- this is your heart.

“…folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

And with that quote on January 30, 2014, Obama brushed art history to the side as frivolous and even foolish subject to study. While he apologized for his remarks, his comment represents a widespread attitude toward the liberal arts: useless in this country and economy.

Soon after Obama’s apology, Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted: “Pathetic Obama apology to art history prof. We do need more degrees that lead to #jobs.” Again.

I know I’m really late to the party on this topic, but I felt their comments were relevant to my goals in blogging and writing: to highlight the importance of art, to encourage you to pursue your craft and to help you use it for a meaningful purpose.

So for now I want to talk about the negativity surrounding the liberal arts, and tell you that they are relevant and important. Really impressing that will take a lot more than one blog post, but this is a start.


What I Was Told

When I was a postgrad studying history, I went to a career workshop for those of us who were unsure about pursuing a career in academia. Our advisor flipped through powerpoint slides listing the jobs history postgrads had succeeded in:

Law. Education. Non-profit. Marketing. Public Relations. Culture. Retail. Conservation.

The possibilities seemed overwhelmingly endless. I wondered why anyone would limit themselves by studying something specific like marketing or PR. I was basking in the freedom I was looking forward to (and trying to shove down the terror…).

Of course not everyone should pursue a liberal arts degree — business, engineering and medicine are obviously valuable. Not everyone needs a bachelor’s degree even. We need a balance in our world.

It is sad, however, that the arts are not considered valuable for those who do choose to study them.


I Swear, We’re Smart. Really.

I feel strongly about this because of my degrees: bachelors in studio art and masters in Early Modern History. My dream was and is to use those degrees in the art and history worlds.

But if I don’t ever make it as an artist, writer, professor or curator, I have developed a set of skills that qualify me for a long list of jobs. History and art history students learn to formulate an argument, think independently, practice self discipline, communicate clearly, research, problem solve, exercise initiative and collaborate with empathy and insight.⁠1

And yet, in my job search I had a hard time convincing employers that I was appropriately qualified — always under or over qualified. I have to admit, this was the time that I briefly regretted my degrees. Not the knowledge that I had gained or the processes of acquiring them, but the difficulty that came in finding a first job.

Apparently, some politicians and employers are afraid to invest in students who received a well-rounded education and can easily be trained in a number of fields.

I thought the fact that I completed a master’s degree at a top foreign university in a difficult subject would be enough to convince an employer that I am worth hiring. I thought it was proof that I could quickly learn to do almost anything.

Well it was enough to convince the one I found, but even that wasn’t a fast or easy journey.

So yes, I agree. It can be difficult for recent liberal arts graduates to get #jobs, but if they learned the skills they should have, they will succeed in a number of positions. A smart employer will recognize the valuable skills and characteristics of a liberal arts postgrad: dedicated, hard working and not afraid of risks or challenges.


Proof from an Employer

One of my favorite podcasts, Virtue in the Wasteland, provides a great example of what employers want in college graduates. Jeff Mallinson, a philosophy professor now working at my alma mater, shared a story. His university was starting a visual communications major and wanted advice from someone in the field about what to include in the degree.

When asked if they should purchase Final Cut Pro or new state-of-the-art computers, the expert said, “No.”

He told the professors and administrators that he needed graduates that could complete a project and understand the arch of a narrative. He needed people that had studied, for example, English: they have to know how to finish a story, how to write something thoughtful and accurate, how to illicit emotions.

For that employer, the ability to understand concepts, think deeply and research was more important than a practical skill.

(If you know which episode this is from, please remind me so I can link to it… I am digging through and can’t remember which podcast I had just listened to when I wrote this!)


A Greater Value in Education

Now forget the fact that liberal arts majors are often smart, strong writers, persuasive, analytical and hard workers. And forget that many employers either don’t know about, care about or value students with these degrees.

Why are the liberal arts worth studying even if they won’t directly lead to a job? Why do I not care that I spent five years studying art and history when I’m working a job in communications right now?

Education contains more value than as a means to the end goal of success and wealth. I spent those five years loving life. I got to spend my days reading books, writing, researching, discussing. I became smarter and more confident. I gained a better understanding of the world and my place in it.

And I don’t regret it — I was pursuing my passion. When I study art history, I feel excited and fulfilled and challenged. Is there no value in that?

All I’m saying is study and pursue what you love — in school and after. Don’t let the fact that there might not be an obvious money-making career path deter you.

“Throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

What about you? Did you study something you love or something just for practicality? Either way, have you ever regretted that decision? Share in the comments — I’d love to hear from you. 


xx Margaret

1 Taken from a Powerpoint presentation from the Careers Centre at the University of St Andrews: “marshall an argument, be self-disciplined and independent intellectually,” “express themselves orally and in writing with coherence, clarity, and fluency,” research and present evidence, analyze and solve problems, “exercise self discipline, self-direction, and initiative,” “work with others and have respect for others’ reasoned views,” work well in groups, and “show empathy and imaginative insight.”

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  • Reply Ariel November 22 at 12:14 pm

    Great post! This is encouraging for those days when it feels like my undergraduate degrees in German, History, and Religious Studies are not appreciated in the job market. As a public health graduate student, I am so grateful for my foundational liberal arts education.

    • Reply November 29 at 10:40 pm

      Thanks for reading Ariel! I’m glad you still value your liberal arts foundation!

  • Reply Beth Foreman November 22 at 2:02 pm

    Yes, yes, yes. Our goal as parents was to finding a school for you and your brother, from elementary and high school through to undergraduate studies, that would teach you to think. Look at you now.

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