Rabinowitz: A liberal arts education is still relevant

In today's fast-paced culture, we are often told

In today's fast-paced culture, we are often told to value the moment, but the lasting worth of one's education can only be assessed over time. When examined from this perspective, the liberal arts hold up very well. (Credit: Janet Hamlin)

Our nation's ongoing economic recession, coupled with the escalating costs of higher education, has rekindled the perennial debate about the value of a liberal arts education. Just last week, North Carolina Gov. Patrick McCrory and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have publicly, and pointedly, posed the question: What good is a major in literature or philosophy when today's college graduates, already saddled with substantial debt, face so uncertain a professional future?

Cantor, in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, called on colleges and universities to be more transparent about costs, to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, and to provide reliable information on employment and potential earnings by academic major. Federal aid, he argued, should be used as an incentive for students to finish their studies, and get into the job market, sooner.

This anxiety about the economy has a significant impact on higher education. A private university without a 10-digit endowment that ignores these trends does so at its fiscal peril. Providing complete and reliable data is critical, as is investing in programs that train students to work in fields such as engineering and the health professions, where demographic trends predict abundant job opportunities. At Hofstra, we're doing both. But there's a difference between giving students resources to help them make informed decisions about where and what they study, and pushing them to pick a major based solely on perceived or projected career potential.


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Where does this leave the liberal arts -- disciplines in the humanities and more recently in the social sciences that for centuries have defined the knowledge an educated person should have? These have been criticized lately for being out of step and, even worse, irrelevant to financial and professional success.

Defenders rightly stress that the training a liberal arts education provides in advancing critical thinking skills and oral and written communication is essential to professional success. They contend that a liberal arts education is the foundation for an engaged citizenry, and they point out the joy and inspiration people find in experiencing literature, the arts, music and theater.

So what is today's college student to do? For most students, the decision about what they should major in goes beyond an analysis of employment statistics. As the following questions that students frequently ask themselves demonstrate, choosing a major in response to a changing job market is not always the most practical or rewarding way to approach one's undergraduate education.

 

What do I want to be when I grow up? The notion that college should provide four years of pre-professional training assumes that students begin their studies with a clear understanding of what they want to do with their lives after graduation. To be sure, there are ambitious young people whose career paths are clear from the outset. But compelling students to make decisions based on perceived job opportunities that are four years in the future deprives them of the self-discovery that is the hallmark of a liberal arts education.

What if I change my mind? Because a liberal arts education exposes students to a wide array of disciplines, students in liberal arts universities frequently discover interests they never knew they had. Partly as a consequence, a substantial percentage of undergraduates change their majors at some point during college. Students who approach their education purely in terms of occupational preparation may deprive themselves of the opportunity to find inspiration and excel in some other area of concentration.

I know what I want to be but what do I major in? For some fields, the connection between academic and career training is clear. An aspiring computer scientist should major in computer science; a future physician assistant should take a course of study in pre-PA. But most fields can be entered from a variety of undergraduate, academic majors. Law students may major as undergraduates in disciplines ranging from English and philosophy to engineering and accounting. Medical schools are eager to expand their pool of talented applicants by recruiting students who have excelled in the humanities and social sciences, not just the more traditional majors in biology and biochemistry. Some of our alumni who have built successful business careers majored in liberal arts disciplines during their undergraduate years.

But I really love art. One of our deans told me about a student who loved graphic arts but who was concerned about its career potential. The dean advised the student to major in art -- that if he loved it and could excel at it, he would find a way to make a career from it. One of the underlying assumptions of a liberal arts education is that we are all wired differently. The Bureau of Labor Statistics may forecast an abundance of jobs for software engineers, but not all of us are either interested in or suited for that. Some of us are wired with the talents to be novelists, actors, musicians or scholars. We sometimes forget that America's global leadership was attained not only through business and technological innovation, but also by the dissemination of its culture and political ideas -- through art, literature, history, music and theater.

At Hofstra, all of our students, regardless of major, are educated about job opportunities. But we encourage them to view their college years as exploration, as well as preparation for the workplace. We want them not only to get jobs after they graduate, but to have rewarding careers and fulfilling lives.

There were supposed to be jobs in these fields. Approaching an undergraduate education based on the availability of jobs in a particular area may appear to be a low-risk/high-reward endeavor, but these trends can change with astonishing rapidity. Think of how quickly job prospects in law and finance changed from 2008 to 2009. The jobs that are seen as hot today may cool off by the time a student is ready to graduate; jobs that may be abundant in one region may be hard to come by in another. The virtue of a liberal arts education is that it provides the graduate with enduring communication and critical thinking skills that are less susceptible to the consequences of job erosion in an area where a student has devoted years of pre-professional training.

 

In today's fast-paced culture, we are often told to value the moment, but the lasting worth of one's education can only be assessed over time. Do we measure the success of the graduate's college experience by her first job or by a lifetime of professional achievement? Americans now change jobs numerous times over a lifetime and when the jobs of tomorrow may not even exist today, how significant is preparation for a student's first job? What we want -- students, parents, all of us -- is something of lasting worth.

When examined from this perspective, the liberal arts hold up very well.

Stuart Rabinowitz is president of Hofstra University.

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