Why study the liberal arts?
The short answer? Both fulfilling work and fulfilling lives.
As Lucas Daprile recently observed in The State, “The perception that English or history majors are less likely to get jobs . . . may be more of a myth.” Daprile is right, and we can prove it. The truth is that most liberal arts majors “are well employed and well compensated,” according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
In a separate study, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences relied on Census data, other government sources and Gallup polling to demonstrate that humanities graduates are not only employed but also holding positions of authority. The study also shows that these graduates generally feel that they make enough money and are as satisfied with their careers as are those who majored in STEM fields. Although their starting salaries may be lower on average, humanities majors typically catch up over time, with more potential for a greater arc in their salary over the course of their working lives. As many as 60 percent of humanities majors will move into supervisory roles.
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These findings may be surprising, even shocking, to students and parents who have been wary of majoring in the liberal arts because these disciplines often don’t seem to be explicitly preparing majors for a specific career. But this seeming weakness is actually a strength, as the evidence shows.
The average college graduate entering the workforce today is expected to hold anywhere from 7-12 jobs before retirement. Precisely because liberal arts majors don’t view their education as being tied to a specific field, they are open to pursuing a variety of jobs over time — including lucrative leadership positions. The liberal arts provide the broad skills and habits of mind that allow workers to navigate these multiple career changes and to succeed where other more narrowly trained graduates might fail or stall out.
Also, in a workplace that is increasingly automating, the liberal arts teach capabilities that robots, machines and computers have yet to master. This explains why entrepreneur Mark Cuban remains bullish on “liberal arts majors” generally. He believes there will be a “much greater demand” for majors in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and mathematical, natural and physical sciences because “automation and artificial intelligence will eliminate many jobs.” The forms of work that will survive automation, according to a recent McKinsey report, will involve managing and developing people and applying expertise to decision-making. Humans will continue to do the work that involves interpersonal skills, creativity and judgment — capabilities that liberal arts majors reliably develop.
Finally, liberal arts majors appear to have an edge in today’s workforce, according to a 2018 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The executives surveyed for this report identified the skills they most valued in future employees in the following ranked order: communication, both written and oral; critical thinking and analytical reasoning; teamwork skills, especially with diverse groups; information literacy; complex problem-solving; and innovation and creativity. These top-ranked skills are the bedrock of a liberal arts education. If we assume that college is about preparing for a career, then the evidence suggests that majoring in the humanities and other liberal arts could turn out to be a very smart move.
Mr. Ford is a dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Mr. Lynn is a dean of the South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina.