The value of a liberal arts education

Published 9:40pm Saturday, April 26, 2014

Each spring, high school seniors across the country make decisions about where they will spend the next two or four (or, in some case, more) years attending college.

Whatever career path they eventually pursue, a liberal arts education offers a strong foundation of knowledge and skills that will serve graduates well throughout their lives. The most successful careers, particularly the ones that are vital to the 21st century economy, are built upon abilities central to any good liberal arts education.

These abilities include the willingness to ask penetrating questions and challenge the status quo, to think critically, to communicate clearly, and to seek connections between diverse ideas and practices.

A liberal arts education is especially valuable in a world changing as fast as ours. Young people’s professional prospects are uncertain, and the jobs and roles of today are in flux to a greater extent than any time in memory.

Jobs with high demand today may be on the decline in 10 years, and the jobs today’s high school seniors will have 20 years from now may not even yet exist. Imagine trying to explain to someone in 1994 the skills and responsibilities of a director of social media or digital marketing!

Among the valuable purposes of providing an education – and not just a degree – is to prepare young people for the changes that will invariably come during their working careers.

Indeed, the important life skills developed through a liberal arts education are constantly shaped and honed throughout one’s life and work experiences.

With its focus on deeper thinking and reflection on life’s most important questions, a liberal arts education also offers an antidote to some of the less savory aspects of our media culture, including the fast-paced, never-ending overload of information that is all too often mistaken for knowledge.

News channels hurl information at us 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Social media is in perpetual motion, challenging users to keep up with a never-ending stream of Facebook posts, tweets and messages of limited length and content. The problem with this is that it tends to minimize or erode our capabilities to think in critical ways.

As practically any CEO or business leader will tell you, the ability to think creatively and to communicate clearly is invaluable in the working world. A survey of American CEOs conducted in 2013 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that an overwhelming majority – 74 percent – felt that a liberal arts education created a more dynamic worker. Respondents believed that the broader worldview supported by a liberal arts background was a key component for success in today’s business world.

The liberal arts’ emphasis on finding connections and relationships between things not obviously related also plays a particularly important role in providing students graduating into an uncertain world with the skills they need. We must support their efforts to seek out and explore the common, but often overlooked, connections and interplay between the humanities and sciences that are features of the liberal arts and disciplines such as business and technology.

The value of a liberal arts education begins in the classroom, but continues far beyond.

Students today – along with their parents – should carefully consider the immediate and long-term value of a liberal arts education as they plan for college and the rest of their lives.

Dr. Robert W. Pearigen is president of Millsaps College in Jackson.