Is Higher Ed really all about the jobs?

Every day I come across another article criticizing the Higher Ed community for the inequities in preparing fresh graduates for jobs. Every facet of the education community is facing the same challenge related to its graduates – how to make sure they achieve gainful employment. It seems this is the second shoe falling after the diploma is presented. And I believe it is dreadfully misguided, at least in its minimizing the promise of a liberal arts education and focusing on employment as the only purpose of higher education.

In the propriety school segment, the attacks of the Department of Education are about the massive default on student debt, driven by the failure of such graduates to find “gainful employment”. In traditional schools, student retention is a continual problem, especially as students have given up on their dreams to have a profession of choice. A fast food job or plant worker job is not considered as “gainful employment “even if they bring in a modest wage. A recent survey showed that 41% of jobs taken by recent graduates did not require a college degree. Now all universities have been compelled to expand their job related support and structured guidance on the employment process. More importantly, business and technical degrees are being emphasized and expanded because they are met with much better job prospects than liberal arts programs. Parents and students are just not willing to incur large educational loans unless there is some hope of a resulting job that will provide enough income to pay back the debt while building a household. This is causing many universities to downsize the Humanities Departments and cut back on liberal arts programs.

A few years my family faced a similar dilemma when my daughter had to decide where to attend college and which program would best meet her needs. Although I certainly wanted my daughter to end up with “gainful employment”, I was just as motivated by the desire that she have a broad based, liberal arts foundation to make her a better, more intellectual and thoughtful member of society. We had our focus on the long term goals, not the immediate ones.

My daughter wanted very much to be an architect and make decisions about designing, building and developing properties. She had choices between two kinds of programs: (1) a technical based five-year Bachelor of Architecture program that provided maximum technical coverage (no room for electives), with better job prospects; or (2) a more humanities based Bachelor of Arts degree with significant liberal arts input, although it would require two additional years to be a licensed architect.  She chose the latter program, even though the job prospects were not as robust. That decision was made based upon the value she and my entire family placed on a liberal arts education.

A colleague and strong Humanities advocate, Charles Walker, recently shared with me his view on a liberal arts education in his article included in a University publication at

As it turns out, the factors addressed there mirrored the thoughtful discussions that my family and I utilized in our own attempts to balance (1) an education that provides a technical, job ready set of skills and knowledge against (2) a well rounded humanities program in the tradition of classic liberal arts education. Although the former technical program would provide better preparation for the first job after college, the second offered greater support for longer term career growth and success. How so?

Critical thinking skills – All the humanities courses require reading in both historical and current texts, exercising critical thought in analysis and understanding. And exercising the mind in one functional area sharpens the mind in every functional area! You develop the skill of learning for yourself, of being able to think for yourself and make considered decisions! Humanities will teach you how to think, which is to say, it will teach you how to live. Decision making and problem solving really are the essence of management responsibility. And this benefit alone makes such an education more practical and useful than any job-specific training ever could.

Cultural Sensitivity – “Students in humanities study a curriculum which covers the breadth of the human experience throughout history,” Walker says, explaining that the material helps “develop an appreciation for other cultures across different races and backgrounds.” A thorough knowledge of a wide range of cultures, organizations, events, philosophies, and possibilities makes the phenomena of life appear more coherent and understandable. This diversity of learning forms a context that is crucial for full understanding and a general knowledge of the world provides that context. How much better will the decision maker be able to succeed in a globalized, technologically expanding business climate?

Ability to Research – Your real education at college will not consist merely of acquiring a giant pile of facts while you are here; it will be in the skill of learning itself. Knowledge builds upon knowledge. When you learn something, your brain remembers how you learned it and sets up new pathways, and if necessary, new categories, to make future learning faster. Knowledge of many subject areas provides a cross fertilization of ideas, a fullness of mind that produces new ideas and better understanding. This means the decisions made will be of higher quality, with greater insight and more human understanding.

And in addition:

Enhancing Creativity – Knowledge of many subject areas provides a cross fertilization of ideas, a fullness of mind that produces new ideas and better understanding. Those sudden realizations, those solutions seemingly out of nowhere, are really almost always the product of the mind working unconsciously on a problem and using materials stored up through long study and conscious thought. The greater the storehouse of your knowledge, and the wider its range, the more creative you will be. The interactions of diversified knowledge are so subtle and so sophisticated that their results cannot be predicted.

Life, itself, is a whole – Most jobs, most endeavors, really require more knowledge than that of one field. It will help you see and feel your defects and to change yourself, to be a better citizen, spouse, human being. Wisdom is seeing life whole–meaning that every realm of knowledge must be consulted to discover a full truth. Knowledge leads to wise action and to an understanding of human nature.

Liberal arts will bring you happiness – A cultivated mind enjoys itself and the arts. The extensive but increasingly neglected culture of western civilization provides endless material for pleasure and improvement. A deep appreciation of painting or sculpture or literature, of symbolism, wit, figurative language, historical allusion, character and personality, this is open to the mind that can understand and enjoy it. Knowledge makes you smarter and smarter is happier. Recent research has demonstrated that contrary to previous ideas, intelligence can actually increase through study and learning. Educated and intelligent people have, statistically, happier marriages, less loneliness, lower rates of depression and mental illness, and a higher reported degree of satisfaction with life.

My daughter? She entered the Bachelor of Arts in Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. Her first class was not about drawing plans or using computer graphics, or understanding design relationships or strengths of materials. Rather it was devoted to walking through and understanding failing neighborhoods, discerning how they no long provided linkage to the citizens, trying to understand what steps could rebuild a sense of place and belonging that would restore the urban fabric long since missing from the neighborhood. What is the role of place, of connections, in defining our living areas and our civilization?

These are broad questions, worthy of a broad based and culturally rich solution. Now my daughter is an Urban Designer with a transportation and community planning company. Although she regularly uses the architectural skill of her technical education, it is the liberal arts knowledge and insight that allow her to make a real difference in the communities and cities she serves.

In the long run, the power of a strong liberal arts tradition and grounding in the humanities will make our world a better place.

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