The Myth of the Liberal Arts Education

August 2nd, 2006 by Bob Bly

When asked whether young people today should go to school to gain specific job skills, a high-level educator at a prestigious university said, “They should enroll in a liberal arts college so they can learn how to think.”

This is the myth of the liberal arts education: that liberal arts teach you to think, but technical disciplines don’t.

Well, as a B.S. chemical engineer, I can tell you that the assumption that a specialized or technical education does not teach you to think is wrong.

Engineers, in particular, master problem solving skills that serve them in virtually every area of work and life.

What a liberal arts education DOES do that a technical education doesn’t is make you better read and more well rounded.

When I went to college in the 1970s, most majors required you to take only 8 or 9 courses in that subject out of a total of 32 courses required for an undergraduate degree.

But as chemical engineers, 25 out of our 32 courses had to be math, science, and engineering … so yes, we were less well-rounded than the liberal arts majors.

But you don’t need to go to college to become well read and well educated.

You can do that by visiting your local library and becoming a voracious reader … for free … and save yourself $100,000 in tuition.

Dear Reader, what kind of education do YOU have — technical or liberal arts?

Which do you think serves a person better in today’s world, and why?

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006 at 12:17 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

23 responses about “The Myth of the Liberal Arts Education”

  1. Patty H. said:

    Both have advantages: Liberal arts degree make you a better party guest, while technical degrees make you more money.

    (I have a liberal arts degree. I’m broke, but popular!)

  2. Andrew Johnson said:

    I have neither. When I was going to school I realised I could either sit in class and be told what I already know, or I could leave and write the things that would be in the textbooks 5 years from now. 6 months after dropping out I was contacted by a publisher who wanted me to write a book for them and pay me an advance (I declined.)

    I really enjoyed the few years I spent in college, but I also recognized that there were bigger and better opportunities that I would miss out on if I stuck around.

  3. Chris Yeh said:

    I have both an engineering degree and a degree in creative writing. But your major doesn’t matter–if you want to learn, you’ll learn. It’s what you learn after you graduate that matters most.

  4. Sean Woodruff said:

    I have a B.S. in Civil Engineering and and MBA in Marketing. I’ve always had much more fun studying and DOing the marketing but I’ve never regreted the step-by-step, formula thinking skills I learned in engineering school.

    I seem to run across a lot of DMers that are engineers. Hmmmm?

  5. Heather Cook said:

    I think that “high-level educator” forgot to mention that he wants students to learn to think like he does. I’ve never seen so much brainwashing as at the universities today.

    I have the education of the school of hard knocks. I was to busy living, writing, earning to go to university and I can hold my own with thems thats gone and gots the book learnin’.

    A good friend has a Liberal Arts degree. He works in construction and he’s the most annoying party guest ever… I always want to walk over to him and give him a hug and say “yes, honey, we know you are smart, you can stop trying to prove it now.”

  6. Michael Roach said:

    B.Eng, Engineering Physics.

    Undoubtedly, in my opinion anyway, a technical degree serves a person better in today’s world. What is a liberal arts degree really useful for?

  7. Pam Gitta said:

    I have a liberal arts degree–MA in English. I got it because I love to read, and couldn’t resist the chance to get school credit for it. (And I don’t think anyone should *ever* ignore the old rule about doing what you love.)

    I don’t think a liberal arts degree is any better or worse than a more technical degree–my experience has been that when people hear about my degree, I can literally see my IQ rising several points in their eyes. While that’s fun from a sociological point of view, the downside is that their sudden reappraisal of my intelligence has never resulted in a corresponding increase in my bank account. Of course, if I’m a good liberal arts major, I should say that doesn’t matter.

    I have, however, made a nice packet of money with a part-time (college) teaching job, which is something I couldn’t do if I didn’t have the MA. I’ve also attended the college of hard knocks, a school most people in their 40s are familiar with, whether they ever lived in a dorm or not. And, when it comes to history in particular, I’m completely self-taught. I think of all the liberal disciplines, that one and philosophy are the most ill-served by the college model of instruction.

    In today’s world, I believe either field of study can work. There are so many highly-specialized careers to choose from, that you can make any degree into just about any kind of a living. It’s all in…wait for this…how you market yourself.

  8. Dianna Huff said:

    I’ll just tag after Pam — she phrased it all so well. I, too, have an MA in English. I started off as a pre-nursing major because like all liberal arts majors, I’m interested in everything, including science. However, I discovered nursing wasn’t my thing, nor was Business and Economics. (Nothing beats the fear of sitting through an econ exam and realizing it’s is written in a foreign language.)

    I still love to read and learn new things — it’s the one reason I love my job. Where else do you get paid to learn how things work?

  9. Chris O'Byrne said:

    I have a B.S. in Chemical Engineering (yes, yet another one!) and an M.A. in…. Earth Literacy! I also read voraciously. Most of my friends in engineering school were also well-read and knew a lot about what was going on in the world around them. I also had some friends that were so-called communications majors and they were less knowledgable about everything, especially technical subjects.

    I think the bottom line has more to do with a person’s innate intelligence than their education.

  10. Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan said:

    I have a B. Eng. degree in computer engineering and a teacher’s diploma in ESL and adult education. I think they complement each other.

    With this combination I write mainly for technology and engineering companies. Over the years, mainly as a hobby, I’ve also become a personal trainer, so now I write a lot for the alternative health, wellness and fitness companies too.

    To me it was the military and the engineering school that taught me how to think and how to handle assignments systematically.

  11. Dan Tarker said:

    I have an MFA in Playwriting. Talk about un-practical. Yet I have made a career out of it thus far. I do feel my liberal arts education did teach me to think more deeply and complexly about the world. I also believe it made me a better reader and writer as well. What is great about technical training, however, is that you have something to write about…your technical knowledge. As a liberal arts person, I’s have to spend a lot more time researching thermodynamics or the spin of quirks in order to write about those topics.

  12. Phil Dunn said:

    My situation is the reverse of the one Bob describes. I have a liberal arts undergrad degree (History) and Journalism Masters (which is technical in many ways). I’m “well rounded,” I guess, from the liberal arts background, but I spent countless hours tinkering with computers, hardware and software as a youth (still do), so I have that engineering experience that comes from trial and error, testing and mechanical disasters/successes.

    The liberal arts background is important for my career as a writer because it gives me a broad contextual background to draw on when writing about a variety of things (both technical and non). The ‘cocktail party’ angle mentioned here is important, because it allows you to connect with people on their terms — which is important in all kinds of situations.. advertising, marketing, sales, education/instruction, and on and on.

  13. Andrew Seltz said:

    I went to college to study animation, but was lucky enough to go to a school that allowed me to ‘design my own degree.’ I ended up studying writing, painting, computer graphics, and programming along with my film and animation studies. Almost everything I learned has been useful to me at one time or another and I have never been a professional animator.

    My wife recently gave me a book called “Refuse To Choose.” The basic idea of the book is that some people are ‘wired up’ to be generalists – interested in many things and not highly specialized. This describes me perfectly. My college experience allowed me to learn in a pattern that worked with my generalist traits. I don’t think I would have survived in an engineering program even though I did well in math and science classes.

    Both approaches to education are bad if you try to force them on a person who is not compatible. It’s like forcing a right-handed person to write with her left hand. After much struggle, the likely outcome is a person with mediocre penmanship.

  14. Amy said:

    I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and in Education. I have Master’s Degree in Special Education. My first degree was through the liberal arts college.

    I suppose my education and experience is specific to my situation, as I would not advise anyone to go into teaching at this point–especially if that person wanted to raise a family.

    But I am terribly jaded.

    I agree that a university education is what a person makes of it. I also think that folks need not enter college immediately after high school–learning a trade and earning some money is a better idea. Then go to college when interests are more specialized, and ideas more specific about what that degree will do for the person.

    That’s what I would do, anyway, if I had it to do over. Although, I did enjoy my liberal arts courses. :)

  15. peter said:

    i think that people who major in liberal arts are selfish, because they dont think about how to contribute in the society. I think that public universities shouldn’t have programs in liberal arts. Public universities are funded by the people taxes and everybody would like to invest their taxes in a good way A liberal art degree is more a luxury than an asset to society and I dont think that public universties have to pay for laidback people who dont like sciences and go to college just to have fun and pick humanities major so they dont have to study too much. IF you just want to have a good time on college , you should be responsible for the full cost and not from the people’s taxes!

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  17. Victoria said:

    I do not agree with Peter’s opinion that “people who major in liberal arts are selfish.” Peter: do you believe it is selfish for an individual to major in History, and then become a history teacher? Because your argument would assert that you do not believe that a teacher is an “asset to society.”

    Should we eliminate writing, history, and art courses from our elementary, middle and high schools as well? Because tax dollars contribute to those programs. While we’re at it, should we eliminate activities like school plays, school orchestras, and sporting events?

  18. Ashley Scott said:

    I am currently an Arts major and minoring in English; I am a freshman at Tarleton State University . I had a liberal arts high school education and believe that it has proved already very beneficial in my college career.

    I excelled in my writing and reading courses and feel like I have better grasp of just simple concepts taught in the classroom. I am very much pro-liberal arts education and hope people come to realize how important being a well-rounded person is. A statement made by the University of Alaska had this to say about liberal arts education:

    In America, the liberal arts education is rooted in the civic responsibility to be an informed participant in the democratic process. It strengthens your ability to think critically and determine your own best path. It also has a strong emphasis on clear and effective writing and communication skills.

    Along with better writing and reading skills, my liberal arts education has strengthened my speaking skills and improved my ability to present my opinion in front of strangers like the ancient greeks did many years ago lol

    I personally believe “Peter’s” response is completely wrong, people are made better citizens by a liberal arts education and there is a need for it in a community in which no one feels like he or she needs to contribute to their society.

  19. Debra said:

    It took me 20 years to get my liberal arts degree, in between raising children and being a military wife. I majored in English, minored in journalism and worked for 15 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before getting a master’s degree in creative writing. I’ve never made than $12/hour. Once I was making $9.10/hour as an editor — and I got that additional 10 cents for having my master’s degree, my publisher told me.
    I loved journalism and felt that was my way to give back to society. Unfortunately, I also required protein in my diet and a roof over my head. I can’t make a living with the talents God gave me and I’m extremely bitter about every student loan check I write.
    I should have gone to welding school.

  20. Michael said:

    Perhaps the liberal arts are weak not because of the subjects themselves, but the way it is taught. A memorizing class taught by an extreme specialist with all the dropouts from other majors is the way it works at public universities. This completely undermines the theoretical goal of a liberal education. Engineering, on the other hand, is filled with the smartest kids in a subject where specializing is important. Perhaps engineering is better if you go to Public U, and liberal arts should be confined to liberal arts colleges, where the ideal is actually attainable. Business majors should just be banned. To conclude, engineering best for big schools, liberal arts for small ones.

  21. Kenneth Casper said:

    You’re right about the library. However, learning a trade is far more complicated than getting a liberal education. Especially in the United States. All trades require some experience, which can only be obtain through some apprenticing process, which closed to most of us. Now, I can truly go to the library and get an Audel book on pipefitting and read it several times. But that is not training to be a pipefitter. The training is an apprenticeship. Just try getting one! America is a closed society and is not equal in any respect. Internships? Two or three months does not pass as training for most trades. Indeed if you have a degree in engineering, you are out of luck if you do not have a connection already in that field. The deck is loaded!

  22. Danny said:

    People need to understand that a Liberal Arts education teaches a person to think effectively, have an open mind, and to be analytical. Besides making a person well-rounded, they serve as a basis for learning, that is encouraging a step by step process of gathering information and problem solving. This what the colleges and universities is suppose to teach when it comes to a liberal education. Anyway, most of our higher education institutions have lost their sense of direction. Today, they are just businesses trying to cash in by enrolling as many students they can without any serious consideration. Another problem we need to address is that colleges do not prepare you for a career. Unless you major in a trade or skills/labor market oriented major such as engineering, or business, your degree usually does not provide you with the direct skills for getting that job, in many cases a high paying one! This also another reason why many Liberal Arts college grads go to Law School hoping to make up for that lost opportunity of earning a high income, and realized it wasn’t for them.

    If money is your primary objective, then I would suggest a trade or technical school.

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