What does a liberal arts degree prepare us for?
The above question is one I hear all the time from my friends and family. But most times, content in the pursuit of my passions, I ignore the criticism.
But I can’t anymore. According to author Michael Ellsberg in an op-ed in The New York Times, “American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics and historians.” He continues to make an argument describing how college is appropriate only for regulated fields, by which he means the ones with clear career paths such as engineers, doctors and lawyers. His argument relies on two premises: High school graduates are ready to enter the work force and skills including thinking innovatively and networking are best learned outside of higher education.
Eighteen-year-olds are barely old enough to vote, are still poor drivers and are unable to consume alcohol or check into hotel rooms by themselves. Those limitations aside, most have yet to move out of their parents’ homes and may not have held a real job yet. As for networking, what network is greater than a college campus and its huge alumni base and avid sports fans? Innovative thinking results from exposure to new ideas and situations, both of which are present on university campuses.
So I disagree with Ellsberg on both counts. I would also like to point out that it was my training in liberal arts that taught me how to explicate his argument, but that is, of course, an undesirable talent. His argument also fails because most of his support comes from using the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Michael Dells of the world to support his point — all of whom represent a uniquely talented and successful group that is incomparable to the rest of the population.
Given that this is a university-sponsored paper, you probably already believe in some worth of a college education. But apparently, our own university doesn’t — at least when it comes to the College of Liberal Arts.
This mentality is perpetuated by the dismal showing of career opportunities at last week’s career fair. I was appalled at the jobs offered that my degree in liberal arts apparently prepares me for.
There were several companies that would love for me to work as an unpaid intern. Do they eventually hire those interns? No, but the experience would be good. Multiple financial advisers were at the fair recruiting students with degrees in finance, a major not even offered in the college.
Several companies recruited me for managerial positions in retail, but I would have qualified for all of them at this point in my life had I simply dropped out of high school at 16 and started working for them then.
Should you find yourself desiring the ability to drive trucks and deliver salty snacks to vending machines across the country, guess what? The college thinks your degree prepares you to do that, too. How is the job market and everyone else supposed to take liberal arts degrees seriously if the university granting them to us tells us that after four years of schooling and at least 120 credit hours of education, we are now qualified to drive trucks for a living?
If UT believes as I do that the skills gained in a liberal arts education are worthy of jobs that are more difficult than that, it needs to act that way. Quit giving us fluffy speeches about the merits of “thinking critically and expanding our minds” if you do not believe they will get us a real job. Most job opportunities ask for employees to think creatively, solve problems and write well, all of which are skills that are most emphasized in liberal arts. Also, since the college regularly admits and graduates more students than any other college, pull on the giant alumni network to find opportunities for us. The opportunities are there; the support from this institution isn’t.
If the University thinks we are qualified for great jobs, they need to show us where they are. If not, perhaps one day, all of us liberal arts students will be fortunate enough to visit vending machines on college campuses to deliver our salty treats. I imagine we will sigh, chomp on our tasty confectioneries and shake our heads at all the ignorant masses pursuing degrees with pathways to nowhere.
Taylor is a Plan II and rhetoric and writing senior.