A couple of generations ago, a liberal arts education was highly respected and easily led to a lot of desirable employment. But the world has changed.

Many now believe a liberal arts education has become culturally irrelevant, putting its degree holders at a decided disadvantage in the employment market. Are they right?

The Case for a Liberal Arts Education

If you Google the question, you’ll find plenty of enthusiastic answers in support of a liberal arts degree. The arguments, often a little gauzy, emphasize the moral and intellectual benefits, with the implication that these are unique to the liberal arts, as in this excerpt from an address by T. Kitao, a Swarthmore art history professor:

“The knowledge you learn about the subject of the course is its nominal benefit. It is like the stated moral at the end of a fable. The real substance of learning is something more subtle and complex and profound, which cannot be easily summarized — like the story itself. It has to be experienced, and it is as an experience that it becomes an integral part of the person. Learning how to learn by learning how to think makes a well-educated person.”

But, On the Other Hand…

I have some reservations about Professor Kitao’s assertions. It’s not that he’s wrong, but it’s a very partisan statement, implicitly giving a value to, say, studying English literature, that a science major will miss out on. “Learning how to learn by learning how to think” isn’t limited to specific fields.

All good teachers try to help their students learn by guiding them through the thinking process. A recent book on effective instruction in undergraduate science and engineering makes almost identical arguments for science education that Professor Kitao makes for the liberal arts.

But the author, Nancy Kober, also, sees education — not just science or liberal arts education, but education generally — as the means for students to “establish a solid framework of understanding that can better support new knowledge.”

Two Worlds

Preparing to write this article, I reviewed a lot of online arguments in favor of a liberal arts education. Many of them make similar unearned assertions about the continued relevance and even the superiority of a liberal arts education. “A degree in the liberal arts prepares students not only to make a living, but also to make a life,” is an example of this kind of elevated language with little or no data to back it up. What, finally, does “to make a life” mean? Mostly, it sounds impressive.

For their part, science educators sometimes make similar claims: “Teaching technological literacy, critical thinking and problem-solving through science education gives students the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in school and beyond.”

I’m convinced that this is true, but how is it true in a way that studying 18th century English literature or Ching Dynasty Chinese fiction is not?

The Trend Toward STEM

In 2018, the White House announced a five-year plan to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. The plan states these goals “will guide future federal investment.” One’s first response might be that this is a good thing. In the reality of a world of limited resources, however, what the plan is also doing is announcing future reduced funding for the arts.

The often-reiterated justification for the emphasis on STEM degrees is straightforward, as in this Forbes article, entitled “America Desperately Needs More Stem Students. Here’s How to Get Them:” “There is no doubt that to advance our economy and our society we need to create the next great technology innovations, not just consume them. That’s why there is such urgency for the U.S. to develop a stronger workforce of experts in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).”

The Reality of the Job Market

There’s little doubt that a recent graduate with a STEM degree is going to earn more money than, say, another recent graduate with a BA in English. For many parents and many students, that’s recommendation enough. However, the salary difference may be less than you think. According to a Pew Research study, the average salary in 2017 for a liberal arts major was $50,000, the average for a STEM major was $68,000.

There’s some reason to believe even that relatively moderate $18,000 difference doesn’t hold indefinitely. To jump to the other end of the employment market, a third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees. They’ve somehow been able to avoid the fate that tech entrepreneur Marc Andreesen warns awaits liberal arts majors, that they “end up working in a shoe store.” If you doubt this, Google “Billionaires with liberal arts degrees.”

What Is Life For?

My personal view is that all the STEM vs. liberal arts articles that end up proclaiming the advantages of one over the other are missing the most important point. If studying ancient languages is what you most want to do in life, you’ll not be happy working for Tesla.

Equally, if math — whether applied or theoretical — is what excites you, that’s the education you should pursue, not because you’ll make more money but because it’s what you want to do. Fortunately, it turns out that when you’re passionate about a subject, you’re likely going to succeed — the specific subject’s less important than the passion.