Alumni Column Is a Liberal Arts Education Still Relevant?

Robert C. Johnson

Hardly a week goes by without reading an article bash­ing higher education and specifically the traditional liberal arts programs. Rising costs, concerns about competitive­ness and the overall job market have people concerned.

Recently, the anti-higher education rhetoric regained front page prominence as Peter Theil, co-founder of PayPal and a very lucky investor in Facebook, pontificated that students should not get a higher education degree. He backed up his theory by actually paying stu­dents to drop out of college and start their own companies. I believe his concern is more about the expense of higher education than the actual experience, but many headlines ne­glected that part and boiled it down to simply an anti-higher education argument. It’s inter­esting to note that Mr. Theil has a law degree from Stanford and that he didn’t follow his own advice!

The concern about a liberal arts degree hit home for me earlier this year while participat­ing in Real World. Seniors repeatedly asked me how they would get a job in a specific industry without a relevant degree. It was not uncommon to find a senior seriously worried if they had made the wrong decision – not to attend Colgate, but to major in art history, philosophy, peace studies or any of a myriad of available degrees. They worried that these degrees would be a hindrance to getting a job instead of propelling them forward in the workplace. So, with these questions and con­cerns in mind, was your choice of attending a four year liberal arts school a good one? Are your hours of study about seemingly arcane topics going to help you later in life?

My answer to the above questions is a resounding “yes.” Earning a liberal arts degree is one of the most valuable things you will ever do.

At its core, a liberal arts degree teaches you to think and communicate.

Your specific degree is, to a large extent, irrelevant and simply a foil to teach these core tenants. Studying the social habits of the Maori people in New Zealand is something that you will likely never use outside of an educational in­stitution, but the way that you study and learn about the topic will. The books and articles that you read and con­solidate, the papers that you write, the arguments that you make and the class presentations you give are all skills that will be used almost every day of your professional career.

The top people in every profession share a handful of key skills: the ability to think and communicate. Ev­ery CEO of every major corporation is a communicator at heart. They have to converse with their employees, customers and shareholders.

The vision they have for the company needs to be sold internally and externally in order to be effective. They also all share the ability to think critically – in­put comes from all areas and they need to be able to sort through that information and decide what is valuable and what is not.

These skill sets are not limited to the business world – the leaders of non-profits also share these abilities.

What about scientists and artists? Of course they do, too. Critical thinking is at the heart of the scientific process, and artists communicate via their medium in unique and beautiful ways.

Larger institutions graduate specialists and there is no doubt that they are in de­mand. The world will always need an edu­cational system that produces experts in a single field. However, even more so, the world needs leaders who can communicate and think, and that’s what a liberal arts degree teaches. So don’t worry, your four years at Colgate will not be wasted. You will graduate out into the “Real World” with a skill set that is in demand and will always be relevant.

The leaders of tomorrow are the liberal arts students of today.