Looking for career preparation? Consider the liberal arts

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In 1954, Albert Einstein wrote, “The great moral teachers of humanity were, in a way, artistic geniuses in the art of living.” 

Michael Jacobs

We find these exemplars in areas like philosophy, history, literature and the arts. These disciplines—each housed in the liberal arts—teach a way of “seeing” human experience that Einstein celebrates. Ironically, in an effort to strengthen students’ prospects for success, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), the trend in higher education has been to marginalize the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

This marginalization has been discussed in higher ed circles for decades. Last year the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced that it would cut 13 majors (primarily in the liberal arts), including American studies, art, English, French, German, history, music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology and Spanish, although it has since walked that number back to six. Its goal? To mitigate a $4.5 million deficit and make room for 16 new programs “in areas with high-demand career paths.”

There are countless reasons to study the liberal arts that have nothing to do with career preparation. We embrace their disciplines because they enhance our capacity to think critically, cultivate a deeper understanding of the human condition, enrich our collective culture and understand the social forces that shape our democracy. Still, we must not ignore or undervalue the profound connections between these areas of study and workforce development, particularly as they apply to jobs in STEM. 

In a March 21, 2018, Washington Post op-ed, Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, argues that UWSP’s decision represents our culture’s ongoing attempts to “segregate higher education into the haves and have nots.” 

As a community college dean of liberal arts, I find Krebs’ argument compelling. Community colleges are access-oriented institutions that excel at educating nontraditional, underserved, and underrepresented student populations that have struggled historically to succeed at universities and liberal arts colleges. Given their myriad challenges, which often include limited financial resources, such students consistently receive the message that to achieve professional and personal success they should major in career-oriented academic programs, those with clear connections to labor market demands. We have seen as much in the exponential growth of STEM and health studies majors since the Great Recession.

In the context of workforce development, liberal arts programs and courses are often overlooked except for their capacity to instill students with the “soft skills” related to effective communication, analytical thought, and adaptability. I am reminded of this each time I encounter students at a college open house event and learn that, despite their passion for photography, languages, or social justice, they’ve decided to forgo majoring in a liberal arts discipline for fear that it will not lead to gainful employment in the current, tech-driven labor market. And yet, the modern tech boom is replete with stories of startup founders, presidents and CEOs who studied the liberal arts—from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, who completed a master’s degree in philosophy at Oxford, to Ben Silbermann, who earned a degree in political science before earning billions as the founder of Pinterest.

Rochester’s labor market has been largely defined by the science and tech industry for well over a century, most recently within in the areas of medical science and health care. At Monroe Community College, we have forged partnerships that bring together our STEM and health science faculty and students with regional employers in these fields, and rightly so. 

The logical next step is to articulate more thoroughly to such employers both the intrinsic and instrumental value of the liberal arts. Of the more than 38,000 jobs at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Rochester Regional Health, many require less medical or technical training than they do the capacity for close reading and textual analysis, effective written and verbal communication, problem solving, empathy and cultural competence. And for those positions that do necessitate medical and/or technical training, be it locally or among the many thousands of open STEM jobs throughout the state we want them filled by individuals who possess these abilities, lest our doctors, engineers, environmental scientists, and pharmacologists influence our world with a very limited understanding of the human condition. As educators, we therefore have a responsibility to ensure that our future STEM and health care workers have meaningful engagement with the liberal arts during and after their college careers.

On May 1, the MCC Institute for the Humanities will bring together a panel of experts from higher education and the tech industry to raise the profile of the liberal arts by demonstrating the various ways they intersect with STEM education and industry. Please register online for this event. 

Now, more than ever, it is vital that liberal arts educators engage our communities’ employers, parents, and students—as well as our colleagues in STEM—in meaningful conversation. With any luck, we just might hear one another.

Michael Jacobs is dean of humanities and social sciences, and director of the Institute for the Humanities, at Monroe Community College.

3 thoughts on “Looking for career preparation? Consider the liberal arts

  1. As a liberal arts graduate who has worked in tech for many years, I could not agree more. Too many of recent grad hires I’ve worked with, principally in computer science, come out of these programs with a very limited and one-dimensional perspective. The problem arises when they are considered for promotions to management and their lack of education in things beyond STEM becomes a problem. I do advocate for the addition of Arts to STEM, becoming STEAM, however skills training for trades also needs to be a focus. BTW, Google no longer requires college degrees for many positions, a radical turnaround from their original policy of only hiring PhDs, which was a costly disaster. Too many were professional students with far too narrow a focus.

  2. I think part of the issue here may well be how universities have exploded in size post WWII. The people originally recruited to teach came basically through the GI Bill, i.e., they’d been previously recruited to fight in the war, and they brought with them a wealth of real-world experience when they entered academics. Real-world experience doesn’t uniformly create a better-rounded person (science AND liberal arts), but it sure helps.

    Now we have recruitment for academic posts that practically begins in the cradle, and with that laser-focus comes a too-often loss of breadth of knowledge. Not inevitably, but often. And that may have made what C.P. Snow called the “two societies” still more disparate.

    Then again, makers and creatives and so on all seem to embody far more than reading tables of numbers in a book. If anyone even reads books now.

  3. I think the answer is in properly integrating humanities in STEM education. I went to a liberal arts college, SUNY Potsdam (1979-1983), but focused my education on as much STEM as was possible, majoring in computer science and mathematics. I remember showing up at Kodak in 1984 with my “lowly” Bachelor of Arts degree, which was my feeling at the time. The prevailing attitude seemed to favor “real” engineers with real engineering degrees, Bachelor of Science. Now, after a 35-year career, I realize how much value I gained from the liberal arts/humanities courses I was required to take in going to a liberal arts college — philosophy, psychology, economics, public speaking, etc. Ironically, when I mid-career pursued a higher level degree, Master of Science in Software Engineering at R.I.T. in the mid-1990s, much of the focus of the degree was not computers or programming, it was on human elements of software engineering. The humanities were integrated within the program of study. For example, we learned both about the psychology and habits of our end-users as well as those of our fellow software engineers. Empathy is a common buzzword and soft-skill today; we learned to be empathetic in our creation of software. Rather than create silos in education, maybe we can figure out how to integrate the humanities within our courses of study?

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