Liberal arts degrees get a lot of shade. You could say that “liberal arts” has even become a kind of epithet, shorthand for privileged, idealistic out-of-touchness or mopey fecklessness. (Yes, I majored in English with a focus in creative writing—I mean Creative Writing—at a liberal arts college. I’m not being defensive! You’re being defensive.) If everything I’m saying sounds unfamiliar, just watch the 2012 movie Liberal Arts and you’ll get the idea.
Googling “why liberal arts degrees…”, the first option that pops up to complete your thought is “why liberal arts degrees are worthless”; the second is “why liberal arts degrees are important.” This seems to sum up a lot about the public’s ambivalence on the topic.
The public’s perception of liberal arts degrees can be murky for another reason: not everyone understands what they are. I know this because I realized, in writing this article, that even I—someone with a liberal arts degree—wasn’t quite sure how to define them.
Wait, what exactly is a liberal arts degree?
It seems safe to assume that, if you graduate from a liberal arts institution, you will have a liberal arts degree. But, wait, what constitutes a liberal arts institution?
“The phrase ‘liberal arts college’ itself is ambiguous,” wrote Joel Clemmer in The Academic Library Director: Reflections on a Position in Transition. “To define the set of institutions to be discussed, the statistical approach used by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advance [sic] of Teaching was selected. From this list were culled primarily undergraduate private institutions that award more than 50 percent of their baccalaureate degrees in the liberal arts.”
Unpacking that, it sounds like the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching defined liberal arts institutions, at least circa 1997 (The Academic Library Director‘s copyright date), as private institutions that focus on undergraduate education with over half of their undergraduates getting bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts.
But what exactly are the liberal arts?
Many people mistakenly use “liberal arts” and “humanities” interchangeably. In fact, humanities—the umbrella over subjects that explore the human condition like literature, history, theology, music, art, speech, theater, foreign languages, and film—is just one subsection of the liberal arts. Surprising for some to realize is that liberal arts also include maths and sciences—subjects like biology, statistics, and physics. It is this expansiveness that defines a liberal arts education: in order to graduate, students must complete courses in all of the disciplines that inform the human experience, meaning arts (fine arts, music, performing arts, literature), mathematics, natural science (biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, earth science), philosophy, and religious studies.
Sounds pretty legit, right?
Why do so many people call liberal arts degrees useless, then? They say that a lot.
It’s true—people love to throw that phrase around. While some see the value in cultivating a more varied intellectual capacity rather than focusing solely on the acquisition of specialized vocational skills, others argue that the more generalized liberal arts curriculum doesn’t prepare students for the demands of the current job market.
Even as the real-world value of today’s liberal arts education has been called into question, its price tag is prohibitive. (Then again, this is just the nature of the U.S. college machine. “Tuition costs have soared in recent decades,” The Atlantic reported in 2014. “In 1973, the average cost for tuition and fees at a private nonprofit college was $10,783, adjusted for 2013 dollars. Costs tripled over the ensuing 40 years, with the average jumping to $30,094 last year. Even in the last decade the increase was a staggering 25 percent.”)
Participating in the business of American higher education can feel at once like a concession to some repugnant system and a requirement—a requirement unless you’re one of those rare exceptional people who, through grit, luck, and innovativeness, is able to “make it” in the world without some institution’s official vetting. But, the thinking seems to go, as long as your degree is in something “practical,” it’s worth it.
We’ve established that liberal arts degrees can include the maths and sciences. So, it’s completely possible that a person could get a liberal arts engineering degree and then go on to be an engineer—it just means that they will have a more expansive educational track than those getting their engineering degrees through research universities. These aren’t the folks people are referring to when they’re talking trash about “useless liberal arts degrees.”
The “useless liberal arts degree,” instead, seems to be reserved for those individuals who have taken on the double-whammy of impracticality: a liberal arts degree in a humanities subject.
“We keep telling young Americans that a bachelor’s degree in history is as valuable as, say, a chemical engineering degree—but it’s just not true anymore,” as entrepreneur Scott Gerber wrote in The Atlantic in 2012. “All degrees are not created equal.”
The most maligned, perhaps, is the English major. (When the 35-year-old protagonist of Liberal Arts is asked what he majored in, he jokes, “I was English, with a minor in history, just to make sure I was fully unemployable.”) One could argue that anything in the arts is also on this level. And yet, here we are, so many of us! What have we done with our “useless” liberal arts degrees?
Let’s look at a few case studies.
What are some people doing with their “useless” liberal arts degrees?
Like I said, I majored in English. My bachelor’s degree is from Westminster College, in a small Missouri town called Fulton. In high school, I had been genuinely interested in learning about topics that interested me (people and their stories), but I wasn’t too fussed about colleges, aside from knowing that I wanted to go to one. I think I applied to three or four in total, and Westminster was the only one that gave me a scholarship, so I went there. (Luckily it was perhaps the only one that fulfilled my two criteria—not in Arkansas and a liberal arts college—which is either a testament to how poor of a planner I was or how much faith I had in my own dumb luck.) I’d applied to it because a guy in my friend group was going there, and I thought he was really smart.
It’s hard to say how differently my life would’ve played out had I not gone to this school, but probably pretty differently? Because of its small size—it was supposedly just under 1,000 people when I got there—I felt empowered to put my hands in more areas than I might have in a larger school. I believe it was also this small size that allowed me to be awarded a study abroad scholarship, something I doubt I would’ve bothered applying to if I’d felt the competition had been more numerous.
In Spain (my minors were political science and Spanish), I met Sara Reinbold, from Minnesota. It was 2009. She was attending Arizona State University, getting her degrees in art history and Spanish linguistics through the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. (“I think I took more liberty with my degrees because it was all paid with grant money,” she explains.)
At the time, her plans were to star in a telenovela or become an art thief. Today, she’s an entrepreneur and a fitness instructor, teaching pilates and barre in Madrid through the company she founded, Fresh to Death Fitness Madrid. “I feel extra happy about it,” she says. “I would never have ended up in Spain had I not studied Spanish. And Spain is the best place for me to do what I’m doing, so I have no regrets.”
“Also,” she says, “sometimes I think about falling back on the art history and pursuing a more advanced degree and becoming a museum curator when my body becomes too old and decrepit to teach fitness.”
Asked if anyone ever tried to talk her out of her degree, she says, “Yes, briefly. My parents mentioned engineering. But it was a pretty [half-hearted] effort. And they are the last people from whom I would accept advice about life choices.”
Sara and I stayed friends after our semesters abroad and ended up living together in southern Spain after college in 2011, then down the street from each other the next year in Madrid. This was where I made the somewhat random decision to move to New York City, influenced more than I care to admit by the fact that, traveling on Christmas holiday, I met a Parisian boy who was studying film at NYU. (He was no longer there by the time I moved; he’d only imprinted the city in my brain as a romantic place to be.)
My first time visiting NYC was when I moved here in February 2014, with no job and no friends. That summer I got a copywriting internship at a digital media startup that I found through Craigslist, the selection process for which was writing a haiku. There, I met Kara Cummings, an almost-graduate from Staten Island.
By 2015, Kara would complete school at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Her major was English with a focus in creative writing, and her minor was in film/TV/new media. She says she had “no real concrete plans” with her degree.
“I teased the idea of going into publishing somehow—copywriting, editing, proofreading,” she says. “I applied to an internship at Scholastic my junior year but didn’t get it … so I was kinda like, [screw] this publishing thing, it’s too competitive.”
“Surprisingly,” she says, no one really tried to talk her out of her degree. “Most family members were supportive—like, ‘You can do so much with an English degree!’ It was mostly other college students … talking up the importance of getting a business degree or something ‘useful,’ but my fam was all about it—probably due to my grandfather being a playwright and English professor.”
After interning with me that summer, Kara went on to do work in marketing before pivoting to social media strategy and video production at Business Insider. Today she works in Los Angeles as a video editor and producer at a small digital media startup, where she focuses “mainly on social video and growing our brand audience by creating content that gets a lot of views.”
“I feel okay about it right now,” she says, drawing out the “okay.” “ … mostly proud of myself for learning Premiere and other programs I never learned in school. Still hella proud of my English degree, as it’s helped in a lot of unexpected ways—catching typos, writing scripts for videos, coming up with social copy, etcetera. I think digital media is a hard place to ‘make it’—probably just as competitive as print publishing—but I think the English degree stands out in this industry [compared to film and communications degrees].”
Her ultimate plan is “obv not to make viral videos until I die.” Instead, she’s “just trying to figure out every day how to incorporate what I learned in school—and life, and previous jobs—to something that will carry me through to something greater?” She’d be interested in something related to documentary filmmaking or nonfiction narratives, she says—anything related to “telling important stories that inspire.”
What’s next for the “useless” liberal arts degree?
In the summer of 2016, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center surveyed technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers, and education leaders about the future of workplace training. Some 1,408 people answered, specifically, how they thought it might evolve by 2026.
A general theme was the importance of developing the skills in workers that, as of yet, are unable to be replicated by artificial intelligence (AI) and machines—skills like collaboration, emotional intelligence, and adaptability to diverse environments.
“The most important skills to have in life are gained through interpersonal experiences and the liberal arts,” responded data and policy analyst Frank Elavsky. “Human bodies in close proximity to other human bodies stimulate real compassion, empathy, vulnerability and social-emotional intelligence.”
In other words, despite its flaws, the “useless” liberal arts degree isn’t going anywhere. But, of course, change is inevitable.
Gerber, at least five years ago, was a vocal proponent of this evolution.
“Importantly, I’m not suggesting we get rid of liberal arts departments—I’m suggesting we create more employable English and film majors,” he says. “Well-rounded’ and ‘self-sufficient’ shouldn’t be mutually exclusive concepts, and combining experiential learning with access to business role models and public/private partnerships can fundamentally transform the way we think about workforce development.”
Fair enough—and prescient. This year, Inside Higher Ed reported that “liberal arts college students are getting less artsy.” They reasoned that the uptick in math and sciences enrollments and the shift away from humanities observed in a number of liberal arts institutions is likely due to some combination of job market anxieties and changing gender norms that allow more women to embrace fields where they’ve been historically underrepresented.
As for me and my English major? Since graduating college I’ve traveled the world and I’ve lived at home. I’ve bought health insurance and I’ve been on Medicaid. I’ve worked as a server, an administrative assistant, a nanny, a shot girl, an ESL teacher, a journalist, a creative copywriter, a blog editor, a book editor, a magazine editor, a fact-checker, a freelance writer, an art model, in corporate communications, at a film festival, and packing boxes in a warehouse. Next week, I’m beginning a job as the brand development manager for a health-related startup.
It’s been a wild ride—but I can’t say I’m too mad at my useless liberal arts degree.