Degrees in the Liberal Arts: What Value Do They Have?

Earlier this week, an opinion column from the New York Times was floating around on my Facebook newsfeed.  In the column, the author makes a case for the humanities, specifically English majors.  She (at least I think she is a woman.  I’ve never heard the name Verlyn before) easily points out the benefit of an education in the humanities by stating, “What many undergraduates don’t know–and what many of their professors have been unable to to tell them–is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be.  That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.”

I have a degree in Sociology and Linguistics and a minor in English.  Technically sociology is a soft science, but it provides many of the benefits the author discusses in her article.  My husband is an Ancient Civilizations major.  Consequently, we both see the value of degrees in the humanities and liberal arts in general.  We both learned how to read well and think deeply through our studies.

However, we both realize that none of our majors and minors directly feed into a job.  My husband has often said, “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t decided to go to the seminary.”  When people ask me what sort of jobs sociology brings, I truthfully answer, “Grad school.”  Even the author of this article admits that, “Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs.”  Humanities and the liberal arts just don’t do this.

Take the education section of my resume for example.  This is what I see when submitting it:

my resume

This is what potential employers see when I submit my resume:

others resume

When employers only glance through resumes to narrow down the applications, it’s hard for degrees in the liberal arts to show their full potential.  Consequently, there is a strong incentive to get degrees in majors that lead to jobs or even skip the bachelor’s degree and go to a trade school.  Truth be told, if I were to do my education over again I would probably choose a major that provided more hard skills–or at least get my TESL certification.  While I enjoyed my studies in college and can often see the ways those classes shaped my thought process, it certainly hasn’t helped pay the bills.


Yes, this is me preparing to bludgeon someone with a book.

I don’t have an answer for our society’s education conundrum.  Perhaps it would be best to forget about educating students in the humanities.  After all, even if a college requires it as a gen. ed., students are prone to just complain about wasted time and money.  I’ve heard many(not all) engineering students claim that they should be exempt from classes like rhetoric and introductory literature classes because they have more important classes to take.  With an attitude like that, they won’t get anything out of the class.  You can lead a horse to water. . .

Perhaps it would be better to educate employers about the advantage a degree in the humanities provides.  Maybe it would work to encourage college students to pursue two degrees:  one to provide the hard skills to catch employers’ eyes and one to provide the soft skills that will eventually be valued.

Or maybe the answer doesn’t lie in degrees and employment at all.  The best solution may be to raise children to appreciate and love the humanities so that they are inclined to learn on their own well after they are through school.


4 Comments on “Degrees in the Liberal Arts: What Value Do They Have?”

  1. RPW says:

    My psychology degree provided me with just that, the ability to think clearly and understand relationships. Knowing child development has helped me understand children (and people), but in the end, it was the closest thing to teaching me HOW to think that I still can imagine, aside from studying at a classical education school. I do believe it has helped me be a better wife and a mother, and there have been a few jobs that the bachelors degree qualified me for that helped supplement income (namely, social worker, field interviewer for social science studies, and case manager — fields that are so in need that they are happy with anyone in the social sciences, not just someone with a degree in social work). There are times that I think that I could’ve done the same thing at home, but I am not so sure. I don’t regret it.

    • Katrina says:

      For the first couple of years after I graduated I had a lot of frustration with the job opportunities my degree provided me, mostly because I was trying to be the breadwinner using a sociology degree. I’ve since come to appreciate what I learned in college more in my daily interactions, but I still haven’t seen those advantages in a paycheck.

  2. Kristina says:

    I think we should encourage liberal arts majors but also establish internships through partnerships between academic departments and local businesses during the undergraduate career. Getting on-the-ground experience helps future employers see how you’ve put your thinking skills into practice.

    • Katrina says:

      Yes, internships are helpful. I interned at a daycare for children with behavior disorders through the sociology department and the daycare eventually hired me. Granted, then I got married and moved, so that job only lasted about 5 months.

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