What to study: In defense of a liberal arts education
Last week’s article by Elizabeth Bromstein on the university degrees with the highest unemployment rates stirred up a lot of debate in the social media sphere as people argued over which was the most ‘useless’ course of study.
I actually don’t think that any education is useless. Sure degrees in fields such as literature, philosophy and the arts may not seem to have obvious applications on the job market, but they can actually help you to perform and succeed in almost any role.
A liberal arts education helps students to develop critical thinking skills, the ability to debate ideas and contribute their own. These are cornerstones of leadership. Without this you are destined to be an instrument carrying out tasks designed by another’s strategy. No matter how important those tasks may be, in the modern working world, career growth and security come more easily to the strategist than to the functionary.
But what can you do with that literature degree? Just about anything you want to. About a decade ago, the Conference Board of Canada listed the “Employability Skills” that they saw as vital for workers. The top abilities they mention are all skills that can be acquired in a liberal arts education:
- Learn Continuously – be willing to continuously learn and grow,
- Think & Solve Problems – assess situations and identify problems,
- Manage Information – locate, gather and organize information using appropriate technology and information systems, and
- Participate in Projects & Tasks – plan, design or carry out a project or task from start to finish with well-defined objectives and outcomes.
A degree in any of the disciplines with the highest unemployment rates allows people to develop those very skills and to document their abilities convincingly.
Employers in any field benefit from having a staff filled with curious, flexible minds, thinkers who have been exposed to a wide variety of knowledge and who are skilled in critical thinking and communicating. So study what you’re passionate about and apply the skills you’ve learned to finding innovative, creative approaches to business challenges.
And for the record, since graduating with my literature degree, I have done the following: worked in a bookstore, been an advertising copy writer, a travel writer, and managed the content and editorial strategy of a bunch of the country’s most trafficked websites.
A career is a winding and adventurous journey. Everything you learn in school, and everything you learn along the way only makes you better at whatever comes next.