Does the Liberal Arts Model Deliver Life Success? National Success?

My friend Steve wonders at all the college students who study Lithuanian folk dancing and the like, and wonders whether they shouldn’t study something useful instead, and pursue less remunerative interests when they’re past their prime earning years.

This makes some sense to me, theoretically. But here’s what’s weird, something I’ve been wondering at myself for quite a while:

America is the only country in the world where “liberal arts education” is widespread, actually pretty much ubiquitous in higher ed. (And Canada? Je ne sais pas.) Every other country has a much more voc-tech model: even at Cambridge and Oxford (and certainly in France or China), when you get to college you declare your major immediately, pursue that major, then get a job in that major. In many countries you have to make that decision, or have it made for you, far earlier — at 12 or 15.

America also has, far and away (by everyone’s measure, here and abroad), the most, best universities in the world — maybe even equivalent to its military dominance. America is the number-one magnet location for students from across the globe. And countries across the globe are soliciting American universities to set up satellite shops — with their liberal arts models — in their countries.

How to explain this? The standard, loosy-goosey nostrums about developing critical thinking skills, flexibility of mind, adaptability in a fast-changing work world, etc. seem so vague and wooly up against hard-eyed, nuts-and-bolts preparation for the world of work. But on a national and global level they seem to be born out, in spades.

It’s worth noting that those university rankings give a lot of weight to the strength of graduate schools — which are, essentially, voc-techs at a high level. But (almost) all the people in those graduate schools came up through the liberal arts undergraduate system.

It’s possible, of course, that we have the best universities in spite of the liberal arts model, not because of it. Perhaps if we were more utilitarian and instrumental, we’d be even more profoundly dominant in higher education. But I’m thinking that that imagined counterfactual has the burden of proof on it, up against the existing evidence.

This reminds me of the comment I read a while back from history professor. His students would ask him what they could do with a history degree. He said (paraphrasing from memory here), “Unless you’re going to teach, nothing. But that’s the wrong question. The right question is ‘What do people with history degrees do?’ The answer is — everything.”

Me, I got my B.A. in Literature, Theory and Criticism, and went on to be an equity partner and/or principal in a whole string of startups, with combined values totaling tens of millions of dollars. Did that degree help me do that? I have absolutely no idea. I do know that it’s what I wanted to do at that time — what I’d work at day and night because I was fascinated by the subject. (Even though I had absolutely no intention, at any time in my life, of becoming a teacher or a professor.)

And that interest has continued, greatly enriching my life ever since. Viz. (Competing for the most life-enriching prize is what I call my pre-graduate degree, which I took in downhill skiing — paid for by loading chairlifts in Very Cold Weather for two winters at low wages, and by the opportunity cost of not doing something more remunerative and/or career-enhancing. Shoulda become an investment banker, right? I considered it at the time, it was quite clear where the money was…)

I don’t call myself representative — I’m somewhat smarter than the average bear, and I had a lot of other advantages of birth. Certainly many people will enhance their lives far more by studying something more practical.

But on a national level, I like to think about one of my kids’ best friends, who is currently at the Annapolis Naval Academy, majoring in … literature.

Wacky? Maybe so. But when I look at the world around me, the balance of the evidence tells me that our country and our world are better off because he has the freedom and opportunity to do that. It’s another aspect of the freedom that our country provides — cultural, institutional, intellectual, psychological. It’s among the main reasons — maybe the main reason — that we’re such a remarkably successful country.



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16 responses to “Does the Liberal Arts Model Deliver Life Success? National Success?”

  1. thedoubledope Avatar

    Guessing you want to drag commenters here from the paglia article.

    Perhaps your friend’s child is free and wacky but likely well provisioned for by studying literature at a naval academy because he has what’s called in taoism, balance.

    I can’t imagine that a naval academy trains him in literature on the arts side and gives him nothing but standing in line and following orders on the technical side, because his major is in the arts.

    Such a balance is not struck, not even minimally, in a university liberal arts program in the USA (despite some institutions requiring one science course aimed specifically at addressing this problem among arts degree students).
    If you study the arts in university, you don’t study ANYTHING else. It’s its own “stream”, just as entrapping as the tech/arts split in european school systems.

    How dare you run around calling america’s universities the best in the world without qualification? They have the most science research. But other countries with less research are still on par for quality, just on a smaller scale. In terms of liberal arts, america has arguably the WORST university system at all levels, compared to the world.

    You give blanket credit where it should be specified. And you demean the field of the arts itself. You sound exactly like a consultant for questionable start ups. So I assume you’re at least honest about your opinions.

  2. Big Sis Avatar

    Just a couple of observations on the subject:

    1 – I have some good friends who had spent 5 years to finally get their green cards, having come in on an H1B visa (which only allowed one of them to work). Having finally gotten them, they ended up returning to Denmark because their middle son wanted to pursue a trade as an auto mechanic, and we essentially don’t have a vocational schooling system.

    2 – For so-called “knowledge workers”, I strongly agree that a good liberal education makes someone a better thinker, and more broadly knowledgeable, whatever their field is. As a physics grad student TA many years ago, I observed that the standard “pre-med” program was basically just a vocational school with only the thinnest veneer of actual education. Recently, when it came to choose our Kaiser doctor, we chose one who did not come out of the standard doctor mill – but instead was an Art History from Vassar – and we couldn’t be happier with our choice (but good med school and residencies, which is the proper point for doctor vocational training).

  3. Iyer Avatar

    Interesting Post. Here is my take on this:

    Before we start here is a caveat: There are exceptions to the following observations.

    Folks with Liberal Arts education are what I call “Generalists”. They subsequently graduate in some field but do not become ‘Specialists’.

    They play a major role in sales/marketing, HR, office mgmt roles where the essence of the profession is not strict rules but intuition. They have well rounded education and while that is critical for a well rounded society, the thrust of advancement in this country comes from the specialists who innovate, and handover the ball to the generalists to carry it to the goal line.

    Its unfortunate that I couldn’t find the backgrounds of all the nobel laureates in a single list but spot checks revealed early interest in the field of their choice.

    Comments welcome.
    who identify

  4. Asymptosis Avatar

    Iyer :

    Folks with Liberal Arts education are what I call “Generalists”. They subsequently graduate in some field but do not become ‘Specialists’.

    That doesn’t strike me as a bad generalization. 😉

  5. Jane Avatar

    Response to Iyer:

    I received a liberal arts education (B.A. in French literature with related hours in art history). I am now an International Tax Director in a Fortune 500 company. Let me assure you that understanding, planning for, and administering tax law requires the ability to understand and apply strict rules. Do I think my liberal arts undergrad work was valuable in preparing for this profession? Yes – the discipline that gave me the ability to think critically and approach a situation from a new perspective is very important. Do I think my liberal arts undergrad work has made my life better? ABSOLUTELY!!! If all I had in my intellectual “tool box” was an understanding of tax law or the mechanics of the business world, this would be a much less satisfying life.

    I strongly encouraged my son to follow the same path. He did, followed by law school, and is now a very successful litigator – interpreting the law and negotiating the strict rules of court room procedure as well as utilizing the intuition required to formulate a strong argument or line of questioning as a case proceeds. And enjoying music, art, and literature along the way.

    And then there’s my sister, who also received a liberal arts degree and is now well-known as a prominent scientist and researcher.

    I would say that all of us were educated as “generalists” and have become “specialists.” This is not the path everyone takes, but, certainly, a liberal arts education does not mean that “specialist” careers are off limits. It requires more time, but the added benefits are definitely worth it.

  6. Asymptosis Avatar

    I’m with you, Jane. Like the history professor said. I don’t think many humanities students become physicists, but a decent number do become doctors, a huge number become lawyers, and an immense number work in quite specialized, technical fields. For a brief period back in the day, I was one of the world’s leading experts on software for graphic design, page layout, scanning, high-resolution imagesetting, such like that.

    Studying theory of literature did not lead that that in particular, but it certainly in no way precluded it.

    And, crucially: there’s no way I could have studied for that in college.

  7. Iyer Avatar

    Just so that you know.. At no time did I mean to belittle the degree or call it value-less. I do concur that liberal arts majors have a significant role in the society and live a happy blissful life and I am glad that you have achieved that. If you felt offended, I am really sorry. That was not my intention.

    I like data but unfortunately I couldn’t find any.. Looking around, if I spot an expert in any field, more than likely I find that they have specialized in their undergraduate education. Now as I say, exceptions are always there..

    Just my 2c.

  8. Asymptosis Avatar

    Iyer, not to worry. I think you’re probably right that top experts — certainly nobel laureates — knew where they were going from an early age. But some large percentage of people aren’t like that. They get out in the work world and see what they can find — often multiple times over the course of life. This (more disparate jobs throughout life) is probably especially true of knowledge workers.

    Does a liberal arts education make those knowledge workers more flexible and adaptable, increasing labor market flexibility (a good thing on the macro/aggregate/national level)? That’s the general assertion, and our educational/economic history seems to bear it out. But I can’t imagine how you could measure that, or demonstrate clear causation, in any convincing way.

    I also think that probably you, like I, tend to give inordinate emphasis to the career paths of experts — top-of-the-game people. It’s probably (certainly?) true that each of those people has a much higher individual impact on national well-being.

    But there are far less of them. Most people just get a job that fits pretty well with their talents and predilections. Since there are so many more of them, their aggregate impact could be greater.

  9. Iyer Avatar

    Yes. I agree and nicely put. My original comment was probably not worded properly. A substantial population are ‘Generalists’ and for them the liberal arts education provides several key benefits as explained in earlier comments.

    The Specialists (the top of the game people) are few but have relatively higher impact. But here is the crux.. don’t the specialists drive the direction for the ‘generalists’?.

    Take a corporation.. the relatively top few drive the direction of the entire company. I believe the same goes to the society.

    My contention is that whether its marketing, science, education or innovation.. a relatively few specialists drive the direction for the rest of us to follow. Now again there are exceptions.

  10. Asymptosis Avatar

    Iyer :
    a relatively few specialists drive the direction for the rest of us to follow.

    Certainly so, to a greater or lesser extent. Not sure how much affect lib arts has on their career paths.

  11. Hardie Avatar

    The very best US universities are clearly competitive, on any reasonable measure, with the best elsewhere, and on some measures they are ahead. On others they are behind. In part this is because of how secondary school works. French and German academic high schools (the lycees and Gymnasien) produce a liberal arts education that is far in advance of what even the best US high schools do. The non-academic schools (Realschulen in Germany) and the apprenticeship system in all of continental Europe are serious enterprises. A European trade qualification is a serious and valuable thing and gets respect. But people who take that
    path typically do not go to college.

    Thus European universities are teaching a narrower pool of better educated people. Consequently it makes sense for people to specialize earlier at college level. But neither in those countries nor Britain does early choice of major equate to getting a job in the major. There are many many many more people with degrees in English Literature than there are doing jobs directly related to that. It is a misnomer to call what Europe does a vocational approach and contrast it with the liberal arts approach. There are some parts of the system that strike me as wrong: law and medicine don’t seem to me to be good undergrad degrees. but much of it is pretty similar to what the US system would be like if it were teaching the same type of student.

  12. Asymptosis Avatar

    Thanks, Hardie. Those are really useful insights. Will ponder more.

  13. Wayne Avatar

    A couple of observations:

    * Several commentators here seem to believe that a technical degree does not impart critical thinking skills, while a “liberal arts” degree is all about thinking. They seem to believe that a technical degree consists of 4 or 5 years of learning specific terms and techniques, without ever learning how to reason or analyze problems. This idea is ill-informed at best.

    * Most “technical” undergraduate degrees have breadth requirements. I doubt that any engineer graduates with no history, literature, or other classes at all. (Just in case you think that literature or history, in itself, is the key to reasoning.)

    * In the US, college is often an extended adolescence, during which you “find yourself”. Perhaps a liberal arts degree is just a safe bet for someone who doesn’t know what they want to do when they grow up. Perhaps better than mistakenly choosing a technical field which you don’t really like, but maybe more of a reflection of our culture and how we prepare kids for adulthood (or not).

    * Several commentators mentioned that liberal arts majors often become lawyers. I do not see this as a good thing, and it may be the reason why the US is so incredibly litigious. If someone would trot out actual numbers, it might turn out that “liberal arts” really means “pre-law”. Again, this is a bad thing.

  14. BMW guy Avatar

    I wish I could write like you as Margaret Laurence once said “When I say “work” I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.”

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