What is one to make of a liberal arts education these days? Presidential aspirant Marco Rubio proclaims that we need more welders and fewer philosophers — even though his claims that welders earn more than philosophers were quickly disproved. President Obama has publicly disparaged art history majors because their chances of earning more money after graduation than, say, an engineer, appear on the surface to be lower. In addition, policy makers and government resources have encouraged more students to pursue college majors in fields like science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
With all of these voices and policies driving public thinking toward college outcomes linked to starting salaries and majors that appear to lead directly to jobs, why would college students need to take courses in history, philosophy, social sciences, and the arts? And of what benefit would a well-rounded education be to prospective employers these days?
At Valparaiso University, we are firmly committed to offering a well-rounded education that equips our graduates, who will become tomorrow’s leaders, with both practical experience in a wide range of majors from the professional and STEM fields and essential critical thinking and problem solving skills that are fostered through a rigorous liberal arts education.
After nearly a decade of tepid economic growth and increasing college costs, families are rightfully concerned about the return on investment that comes from a college education. The demand for graduates specializing in STEM and other professional fields never has been greater. However, the national push to steer young people into these areas of study, whether by policy makers or parents, must be tempered with the understanding than a successful 21st century education most focus on more than making a living. It must prepare students to make a life.
Making a life requires exposure to and engagement with a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It requires learning how to learn over and over again, how to adapt to rapidly changing conditions, how to communicate effectively across differences, how to work effectively with many different types of people. An education that allows one to make a life shows students the full range of human potential, human achievement and the many ways through which people have found and continue to find fulfillment and flourish. These are the hallmarks of an excellent liberal arts education.
And there are very practical reasons why liberal arts education is increasingly important and relevant for a student’s career advancement. A 2013 survey by the Association of American Colleges & Universities found more than 90 percent of employers believe the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems — all vital components of a liberal arts curriculum — was more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major.
Just as staggering is the overwhelming desire for new employees who demonstrate a firm grounding in ethical principles, intercultural awareness and the desire to make the pursuit of knowledge a lifelong endeavor. These virtues are deeply embedded within a liberal arts education, as well as in our ethos at Valpo. We expect and challenge our students to be people of integrity and character who discover what they are called to do in the world.
The qualities and virtues graduates gain through a liberal arts education are critically important to employers. Silicon Valley might never exhaust its demand for new workers versed in code, but the new employee who can relate the benefits of such creations helps the company advance far beyond the shores of the United States.
The same is true in medicine or civil engineering or the myriad other paths of study that eventually will yield new devices or practices to improve our lives: Students who learn to see and interact with the world in the broadest manner often will have the greatest insight to take new knowledge beyond the laboratory or factory floor.
History has been marked by great breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology, and humanity guides our use of them for the greatest good. An education firmly based in the humanities only can continue to bolster the world’s next generation of leaders’ propensity to understand and acknowledge the duty to share their talents with their neighbors.
The ancient Greeks shared countless new innovations with the developing world while the great philosophers Aristotle and Plato reminded them that growing as people was every bit as important. In the same way, the rapid growth of the Roman empire was tempered and eventually shaped by the teachings of Christian missionaries.
Notable advances in philosophy often stand alongside new strides in world history. There’s a reason for that; humans would not reach the level of innovation — and continue to reach higher — without the thousands of years of introspection that came before them.
Valparaiso University’s array of talented professors in the STEM fields work together with equally gifted colleagues in the humanities to help our students explore beyond textbooks. Knowledge of the absolutes of mathematics and other sciences is a laudable accomplishment, which only grows much greater when the student wielding it understands how this knowledge can help improve the lives of others.
While political rhetoric and college ratings based on jobs and starting salaries are appealing during protracted times of economic distress, experience has proven that the preponderance those who succeed and flourish over time credit their achievement to a well-rounded education that encouraged them to engage with a wide range of ideas and people, to think critically and enabled them to adapt to a changing world. A successful 21st Century education is a liberal arts education. And that’s why graduates of places like Valparaiso University succeed and flourish in careers all around the world.