A Note From the Chair

CATEGORIES: March 2015

Under Fire:  Liberal Arts in the News

Even if you read nothing else today, take a moment to read this brief column.  Typically in my note, I feature the department’s students, faculty, and staff.  We spend a great deal of effort promoting language study and encouraging you, our readers, to get in touch. This month, however, I would like to do something a little different—talk about the unfortunate public outcry against the liberal arts and the humanities in particular.

There are some in the media and especially in politics who believe that the notion of a liberal arts education is outdated, untenable, and unneeded. In recent years, the governors of Florida, North Carolina, and Texas have all clearly stated their intention of preventing the use of public funds in support of the liberal arts at their state universities. The Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, for example, publicly questioned the role and validity of the liberal arts when he asked: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” 

Gov. Scott’s remarks were met with encouragement by those who, like the Governor, are ill equipped to understand both the role that liberal arts plays and, worse yet, the job prospects for even anthropology graduates: according to the Department of Labor, job growth for anthropologists between 2015 and 2018 will grow 28%—well above the national average. Moreover, a March 2015 article by Business Insider, “Here’s Why Companies are Desperate to Hire Anthropologists,” delineated efforts by Google, Intel, Microsoft—the world’s most important tech firms—to hire anthropologists as soon as they are on the job market.

But, such pieces of evidence rarely make the headlines like those made by uninformed politicians.

It’s worth mentioning that some of the most important CEOs in technology were liberal arts students: Facebook’s’ Mark Zuckerberg studied psychology at Harvard, Apple’s Steve Jobs studied poetry and literature at Reed College, Peter Thiel of PayPal studied philosophy at Stanford, and it is said that Bill Gates took a lot of philosophy in his two years at Harvard.

Even in corporate finance, many of the most successful and important business leaders were liberal arts students: Bank of America’s Brian Moynhan studied history at Brown; international hedge fund manager George Soros majored in philosophy at the London School of Economics; American Express’ Ken Chenault majored in history at Bowdoin College; corporate investor Carl Icahn was a philosophy major at Princeton; the current CEO of Disney, Robert Iger, was a communications major at Ithaca College and the company’s former CEO, Michael Eisner, was an English and Theater double major at Denison University; and Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein majored in government at Harvard.  The list goes on.

Based on this very small list of successful liberal arts majors it is unbelievable the amount of misinformation about the discipline at today’s universities. Even President Obama was way off the mark when he (in)famously stated: “A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” 

Let’s dissect the President’s comments. First, he was not talking about often-proved skills humanities students retain:  improved critical thinking and problem solving abilities, better interpersonal communication skills (often in more than one language), excellent written proficiencies, a finer appreciation for life’s differences, and an understanding of the cultures at work in the global marketplace, among so many others. No, he was not talking about any of those.  He was clearly referring to money in the form of salary.  And the President is clearly using “art history” as a stand-in for any of the humanities disciplines.

The problem is that he’s entirely wrong. It was none other than The Economist and Forbes, two widely respected financial magazines, that dispelled the myth that one’s salary and job prospects are better in other fields. According to Forbes, students graduating with degrees in any of the humanities disciplines make on average $66,000 more during their careers (or $2,000 per year) than those with professional degrees.  And The Economist (see graphic) reports the findings of MIT economist Albert Saiz who found that students with a language background made as much as $125,000 more over the course of one’s career versus those without a language background, depending on the language you study.  The average for a student with a language background was around $70,000 during one’s career.  President Obama quickly realized his error, issuing an apology during the days after making the initial comments.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 15.44.30

And, a liberal arts degree does not train students for just their first job, but rather it prepares students for their last job, given that one will move through three or more positions in their working life. 

This was exactly the point made by Fareed Zakaria, a CNN host and the author of a recent book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, who told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos the following:

“It’s important to build broad general skills, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, because, you know, our economy has always moved very fast… it’s changed… your first job is never the same as your fifth job. I think that the world today much more favors that kind of American general liberal education. (…) I fell in love with the idea of being able to take physics and poetry.  And part of it is, I think, that people just don’t understand that so much of what you do in life is critical thinking… the stuff you learn specifically in a trade is obsolete five years later, six years later.  But, the ability to learn, the ability to get passionate about something is not.”

Why study the liberal arts?  The answer is deceptively simple:  for a more rewarding life and to make more money enjoying it!  Or, as stated by M.J. Riggs, Iowa State Class of 1883 and the first president of the Memorial Union Board: “We come to college not alone to prepare to make a living, but to learn to live a life.”  The quote echoes the philosophy of a liberal arts education, and today can be found engraved above one a doorway in the Memorial Union.