For the record: I’m a proud liberal arts graduate. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with big dreams and a double major that doesn’t have a darned thing to do with my work now. If you’re a parent despairing over your new grad’s choice of major, take heart. You could be the proud parent of an ambitious would-be writer with a degree in 19th Century French Literature and 18th Century Spanish Literature.
So my degree didn’t exactly enhance my job prospects, but the skills I learned were invaluable. A Liberal Arts education (literature, philosophy, mathematics, and the social and physical sciences) builds a student’s ability to think in the abstract. Liberal Arts studies emphasize critical thinking, research, writing and clear communication – all skills that will make anyone more persuasive and, incidentally, more interesting, on and off the job.
A Liberal Arts degree teaches you that ideas matter. That words matter. That important ideas are worth discussing, and to earn a seat at the table for the discussion, you must be lucid, informed, and articulate. Business and technical degrees focus on how things work and what to do. The Liberal Arts focus on why things matter.
It’s easy to make fun of studying philosophy or art history because they have no practical application in the workplace. I would argue that understanding the work of great minds (whether you’re studying philosophers, artists, mathematicians, or novelists) opens up your mind and keeps you humble. You learn to appreciate brilliant thinking and nobility of spirit, which are rare in a world that seems only to value money and fame. Neuroscience researchers have found that reading novels increases empathy and brain function. That makes the fact that 24 percent of Americans report that they haven’t read a single book in the past year even sadder.
If you’re a new graduate, this is a great job market for Liberal Arts majors. Companies are desperate for talent, and even history majors are getting multiple job offers. But there are ways to make your Liberal Arts degree more marketable and shorten your job search.
First, learn to talk about your skill set as an advantage for a potential employer. Emphasize your speaking and writing skills and your ability to think clearly and deeply about issues. Figure out a way to explain why you chose your major. Emphasize your passion for the subject and how what you learned has made you more well-rounded as a person.
Second, consider layering on some other courses, experience, or certifications that will help you land a job. A USA Today article about a Burning Glass study suggests that all liberal arts grads have to do is “couple their liberal arts education with ‘a relatively small dose’ of field-specific skills. Those skills fall into eight categories: marketing, sales, business, social media, graphic design, data analysis and management, computer programming, and information technology networking and support. Most can be acquired through internships, an academic minor, or similar experiences, the study finds.”
Meanwhile, take pride in the fact that anyone can learn technical skills, but it takes a true Liberal Arts major to understand this joke: René Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender asks, “Would you like a drink?” Descartes replies “I think not.” Then he disappears.