The value of a liberal arts education, particularly one in the humanities, is currently questioned in the United States. What’s in question is not the content of a liberal arts education per se, but rather its usefulness in society.
Just last October, Florida Gov. Rick Scott expressed this concern to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so,” he said.
Scott’s remarks spark an interesting question in political philosophy: What are the vital interests of the state, and, more generally, of society? Surely, the promotion of economic growth through investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education can be counted amongst those interests. Another might be upholding the rule of law, since this advances the objective of security and civility that are necessary to conduct business.
Economic growth, security and civility are vital to the state because they’re valuable in promoting human flourishing. Human flourishing, in all of its diverse and wonderful forms, is the real goal of the state. We don’t create jobs for the sake of jobs, enforce laws for the sake of laws or invest in technology for the sake of technology. We do all of these things for the sake of human flourishing.
With the goal of human flourishing in mind, one might ask what a liberal arts education has to offer. The answer is a world of good. Activists, poets, playwrights, politicians and artists trace the development of their identities back to experiences in the liberal arts. Where would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. be without his engagement in theology? How about David Foster Wallace, Terrence Malick or Lawrence Lessig without earlier immersion in philosophy? These are people whose art and ideas enrich our lives in ways beyond the discovery of theorems or development of devices. These are people whose output can’t be measured in terms of dollars, but in terms of their power to strike at the very core of our being.
Of course, not every English major is the next Arthur Miller or Susan Sontag. But this doesn’t mean every student of 19th century French poetry or ancient philosophy is gambling to become the next great literary theorist or Plato scholar. Rather, the experience of a liberal arts education lends itself to all kinds of fields that require a broad-minded, humanistic approach to one’s life and career.
Skeptics may accept all the assertions about the value of a liberal arts education but continue to deny resources to these disciplines in a turbulent economy. However, in terms of job prospects, the numbers don’t support the idea that a liberal arts degree is significantly less viable in today’s job market. A recent study from Georgetown University reports an unemployment rate of 9.27 percent for recent liberal arts graduates, compared to a rate of 7.8 percent for STEM discipline graduates. That’s a difference of only 1.47 percent. The idea that liberal arts majors don’t find jobs is pernicious and flat-out wrong.
We need to abandon the concept that we’re only worth what we’ve been taught in the past and embrace an attitude that values the person we may become in the future. Doing so means changing our discourse surrounding the liberal arts. It means giving up our obsession with how an art history major will function in society and instead discovering how she will flourish.
Seth Wolin is an LSA sophomore.