Nina Boscia: The importance of a liberal arts education today

“You’re majoring in history? What do you plan to do with a degree in history?” During the past several years, I’ve been overhearing this phrase, and others with similar sentiments, spoken to many college students. The concept of having a degree that will directly lead to a student “doing something” has become more marketable as the job market becomes increasingly more selective. The phrase “doing something,” in this instance, most closely refers to a student’s obvious job prospects upon graduation with his or her selected degree. For example, majors that do not warrant a question such as “what will you do with that?” include business, engineering and science-related fields. On the opposite end of the spectrum fall majors such as English, history, philosophy and art history.

So what’s the problem?

According to research conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the number of liberal arts colleges in the United States has decreased by 30% since 2012. President Obama recently commented that liberal arts degrees are not economically friendly. STEM fields across the United States poke fun at liberal arts institutions for not providing students with tangible, directly transferrable skills. With this combined knowledge, it looks like the future of a liberal arts education is grim. However, these aforementioned factors bring me to some more positive press regarding liberal arts institutions and degrees. If these degrees are so worthless, how could it possibly be that CEOs of esteemed companies have come from liberal arts backgrounds? According to TIME Magazine, the current CEOs of Starbucks and Disney graduated with degrees in communications and English, respectively. Where is the disconnect here? Why do liberal arts degrees receive such bad reputations in the professional world?

What’s important to understand in the grand scheme of our westernized education system is the value of communication within any given profession. While STEM majors may leave their undergraduate institutions with the necessary skills and tools to actually construct buildings or enter medical school, liberal arts majors leave college with a less tangible skill set. That actual history knowledge may be meaningless in a student’s job, but what’s not meaningless is that student’s ability to read, write and think critically. His or her outstanding communication skills are not lost on the company that hired a history major.

Thinking analytically is a key component of any career in today’s fast-paced and ever-changing work environment. The skills learned in liberal arts institutions can be transformed and molded into an array of fields. They are transferrable to numerous disciplines and allow for creativity and thought-provoking work to come from an organization. Liberal arts degrees provide students with the tools necessary to succeed in interpersonal relationships and worldly discussions. The content of a particular major may not be as pertinent as the holistic skills learned; instead, a liberal arts degree allows for passions to be explored.

Ask any hiring manager: one of the most necessary and desirable skills companies seek in employees is the ability to communicate appropriately and confidently. According to Forbes Magazine, employers rank “excellent verbal communication ability” as their most desired skill when hiring recent graduates. Where do students learn and perfect these skills? Not in a math class hidden behind a textbook. Instead, it’s in those presentations on Herbert Hoover’s presidency or in a speech on the rhetoric of memory. While seemingly trivial learning experiences may come across as meaningless to an outsider, they ultimately prove most successful for liberal arts students.

Nina Boscia is the founder and director of the Center for Holocaust Education, a nonprofit organization that promotes learning and teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides.