Liberal Arts Degrees—Are they Still Relevant?

There has been a lot of press recently on the demise of the liberal arts degree and that has made me very sad. Full disclosure—I have a liberal arts degree with a double major in history and political science and a minor in Spanish so I will admit, I am a bit biased on this subject.

Twenty five years ago, the economist David W. Breneman, published a controversial report about how we were shifting away from liberal arts toward practical courses “like engineering and business.” In an August 2015 interview with The New York Times (August 2, 2015) about where we stand today. He said that “The economic recession had a severe influence on (liberal arts education). We look at education as an investment, like buying a machine.”

We discussed this topic recently in my business book club. Some people felt that employees weren’t prepared for work when they come out of college and that the colleges and universities were failing them and the business community. Certainly, employees need to be prepared for the work they want to do but isn’t it also important for people to learn how to think? Shouldn’t we expose our youth in college to the arts?

Dr. Breneman says, “the original ethos of education was that it prepared people for citizenship, for enlightened leadership, enhanced their creativity. There was a tradition going back to Jefferson, who founded the University of ‘Virginia, that a liberal arts education was the core of our democracy. If we lose an educated populace, were open for demagogy. We need broadly educated people.”

We’re now seeing a trend where even in elementary and secondary schools, there is less emphasis on the arts and more on STEM classes. While I don’t disagree we need scientists and engineers, we also need our students to learn to appreciate literature, music, theatre, and other less practical but more esoteric subjects!

If I had my way, everyone would get a liberal arts degree and then go on to specialize in their chosen field. However, I am pretty sure that’s not going to happen but I sincerely hope we don’t lose sight of why we educate people—it is not just so they can make money. It is also so that they can be good citizens and creative members of a civilized society.


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