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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education


    In a new book by CNN host Fareed Zakaria called "In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education" the author shows how a broad education that explores a variety of knowledge leads to the most creative and innovative perspectives.  The value of having broad knowledge in a world of specialists maybe counter intuitive.   Certainly the emphasis on STEM education today would make it seem that a liberal arts education is something that will not pay off in a career.  While the starting salaries of students pursuing an engineering or science degree may start out at a higher salary level this advantage disappears over time.  Maybe colleges should charge more to get an engineering degree than a liberal arts degree?
     Fareed shows in this book that what has led to the United States being a leader in the world in innovation and developing new technology comes in part to the strong position of liberal arts education in American colleges.  This value of liberal arts education doesn't exist everywhere in the world.   Germany and many Western European countries have far fewer liberal arts programs and graduates than the US.
     So why study liberal arts if the starting salaries may not be the best way to start paying off student debt?  When you look at some of the major innovators of our current time and in history you see that genius comes in the blending of both scientific knowledge and an understanding of the arts.  Think Steve Jobs, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo DiVinci.  Here in Columbia a case can be made that the success of Jim Rouse was his blending of knowledge of business with a deep understanding of the aesthetics of a community.  While innovation can happen through cooperative group efforts it many times comes from one person blending a number of divergent knowledge streams.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"While the starting salaries of students pursuing an engineering or science degree may start out at a higher salary level this advantage disappears over time." Umm, no. Just, no.

Data. Science. Evidence. See, e.g.,

The ten highest-paying career fields over a career are: Petroleum Engineering; Actuarial Math; Nuclear Engineering; Chemical Engineering; Aerospace Engineering; Electrical Engineering; Computer Engineering; Computer Science; Physics and Mechanical Engineering.

Yes, there are some liberal arts majors who do very well financially - largely, lawyers, business executives, and those few talented enough to make a living at their music or art.

Look, I understand the importance of liberal arts education. I'm really not knocking it. My mother, sister, and two nieces are teachers. My wife has a degree in English. It's important.

But here's the bottom line: I have three daughters. One has a degree in English and Communications, and works in publishing. One has a degree in Actuarial Mathematics and works in big data analytics. And the other is majoring in Education. Which one makes the highest salary? Which one likely will ALWAYS make the highest salary? And is someone going to blame "gender bias" because one of these three young ladies makes more than the others?

Life is about much more than money. All three of my daughters will be successful in life when they're doing what they want, contributing to the greater good, and making enough to have the lifestyle they want. That's what's important.

But please don't go spreading lies about how the typical liberal arts major will eventually make as much as or more than the typical petroleum engineering major. Facts. Science. Data. Truth.