In Defense of the Liberal Arts

By Lane Wallace

We're entering commencement time, which means all kinds of notable people (the President and First Lady included) will be giving well-crafted speeches about the importance of education and a college degree. But is one kind of degree better than another? Much has been said about the importance of science and technology degrees in terms of keeping the U.S. competitive with the rest of the world. And as the economy has worsened, and fears of joblessness have risen, the voices advocating pursuit of more "practical" degrees have grown in both number and volume.

A recent New York Times article noted that Humanities now account for only 8% of all college degrees, and that proponents are having to work harder than ever to justify the worth of a humanities, or liberal arts, course of study. The article quotes Anthony T. Kronman, a Yale law professor, as saying, reluctantly, that the essence of a humanities education may become "a great luxury that many cannot afford."

I passionately disagree.

 (Full disclosure: I graduated from an Ivy League university with a liberal arts degree in Semiotics, which most people would consider a highly frivolous subject. Although I have to say, the degree did turn out to be useful in getting me job interviews in all kinds of fields, simply because nobody knew what the word meant.)

However. Three points worth considering in the debate:

First ... I figured out the true value of a college degree not in the lofty halls of Brown University, but in a corrugated cardboard factory in New Zealand. I'd taken a "leave of absence" as they call it, after my sophomore year, to figure out if I really wanted to pay all that money learn things that seemed, well ... a tad non-essential, at best. I packed a backpack and took off for the romantic frontier-land of New Zealand with nothing but $500 and a working visa in my pocket. The six months I spent there were a far cry from what I thought the adventure would be, but it was educational. Culminating in my job at the cardboard factory--where I was surrounded by people who hated their jobs but had no other viable option.

In a flash, I grasped the true value of a college degree. It didn't matter what I majored in. It didn't even matter all that much what my grades were. What mattered was that I got that rectangular piece of paper that said, "Lane Wallace never has to work in a corrugated cardboard factory again." A piece of paper that was proof to any potential future employer that I could stick with a project and complete it successfully, even if parts of it weren't all that much fun. A piece of paper that said I had learned how to process an overload of information, prioritize, sort through it intelligently, and distill all that into a coherent end product ... all while coping with stress and deadlines without imploding.

I also realized that I'd do far better at all that if I studied what I was most passionate about learning, practicality be damned. Hence my switch to Semiotics (which, for anyone wondering, is a four-dollar word for communication). If you want to be an engineer or physicist, you'd better major in the subject. But only if that's what you truly want to study and do. Pro forma dedication is discernible from 100 paces away.

Second ... In an increasingly global economy and world, more than just technical skill is required. Far more challenging is the ability to work with a multitude of viewpoints and cultures. And the liberal arts are particularly good at teaching how different arguments on the same point can be equally valid, depending on what presumptions or values you bring to the subject. The liberal arts canvas is painted not in reassuring black-and-white tones, but in maddening shades of gray.

What's the "right" solution to the conflict in Sudan? What was Shakespeare's most important work and why? Was John Locke right in his arguments about personal property? Get comfortable with the ambiguities inherent in a liberal arts education, and you're far better equipped to face the ambiguities and differing viewpoints in a complex, global world. (The late David Foster Wallace expanded on this point in his acclaimed 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, which, if you missed it at the time, is worth taking the time to read.)

Third ... Yes, the U.S. needs technical expertise to keep pace, economically and technologically. But we also need innovators and entrepreneurs creating break-through concepts and businesses. And while knowledge in an area is important, I'd argue that the most important trait a pioneering entrepreneur needs is the confidence to buck convention; to believe he or she is right, despite what all the experts say.

Last year, I interviewed Alan Klapmeier, founder and CEO of the Cirrus Design Corporation, which revolutionized the piston-airplane manufacturing industry with its composite Cirrus aircraft (discussed at length by James Fallows both here at The Atlantic, and in his book Free Flight). I asked Klapmeier what gave him the idea, back in the mid-1980s, that he could take on an industry as conservative and entrenched as general aviation. His answer:

"I think it was my college education. I went to Ripon College, which was a liberal arts school. And that kind of school teaches you how to think for yourself. My professors didn't tell you you were wrong. They convinced you you were wrong. And if they couldn't, you might end up changing their minds on something. Figuring out for yourself what right and wrong is builds a huge bit of confidence. The kind that makes you think maybe we can take on an industry." 

Worth thinking about.