Liberal arts degrees becoming more practical
Meredith Moriak, The Oklahoma Daily
“Are you majoring in the alphabet?” is a common quip directed toward students majoring in letters.
This quip may all be in good fun, but it is an indicator of how uninformed many college students are about what exactly a liberal arts degree is and what can be done with it after college.
Due to the recent economic situation, the practicality of being a liberal arts major has come under even more scrutiny. In an economic climate where traditionally stable job prospects are not a guarantee, why would someone major in such a “non-practical” area?
This line of thought is flawed, said Samuel Huskey, Classics and Letters Department chairman.
“I think that is a false dichotomy,” Huskey said. “Liberal arts are practical.”
Unlike the modern definition of liberal, the classic definition of liberal meant “liberty and freedom.” This is exactly what Huskey believes students receive when they choose liberal arts as their major: more occupational freedom.
“Liberal arts education is an excellent choice,” Huskey said. “It is an overall education rather than an education in a specific field that could become outdated.”
Besides greater occupational freedom, Huskey focused on other practical results of a student choosing to pursue a liberal arts education.
“Letters, classics and liberal arts students can have an edge based on their ability to communicate, to market themselves and adapt to a wide variety of settings,” Huskey said.
This ability to communicate well, and specifically write well, is something that is beneficial for a variety of occupational settings. Health and exercise science professor Jeffrey Stout emphasized the importance of good writing within his own field.
“There’s a huge opportunity for people who can write to make good part-time money,” Stout said. “A lot of people in our field can’t write well because they are used to writing scientifically.”
Stout also emphasized that even within degrees often thought of as more practical, such as science, more than a bachelor’s degree is required to get a well-paid position.
“Most people who are in the sciences usually go on to graduate school,” he said. “To me a bachelor’s degree now is like a high school degree when I was in college.”
The increased level of education students have to receive to be competitive in the workforce is obvious. There are very few majors in which a student can simply receive their bachelor’s degree and then find a great job.
An exception to this rule would be engineering majors. Dave Sabbatini, environmental engineering professor at OU, reiterated this.
“Job prospects are one of the number of reasons students pursue engineering,” Sabbatini said.
However, Sabbatini insists that a broad range of skills is the best approach to tackling problems, because “engineers alone will flub it up.”
A good example of this type of interdisciplinary dependence is an organization Sabbatini is involved with on campus called Engineers Without Borders.
This organization goes overseas and tries to solve different countries’ problems using their expertise in engineering.
Sabbatini’s own speciality is water cleanliness. Sabbatini said that when they go overseas, they recruit students from a variety of disciplines ranging from anthropology to sociology so they can approach a country’s problem holistically.
This has led Sabbatini to decide to change the name from Engineers Without Borders to Sooners Without Borders.
The importance of utilizing multiple disciplines when approaching a problem has led some OU students to pursue both a liberal arts degree and a degree in the sciences. This is exactly what Sarah Swenson, last year’s OU Rhodes Scholar, decided to do.
Swenson received her undergraduate degree in zoology and biomedical sciences, but is now pursing a second bachelor’s degree in English and history at Oxford. Swenson said that she thought getting a second degree in the liberal arts would make her a better doctor.
Tucker Cross, 2010 OU classics graduate, clarified exactly how the humanities helps with this.
“History helps you see where you are going next, philosophy clarifies thinking and literature helps you become more aware of the world and helps you analyze ideas and concepts,” Cross said. “It is not the job of the Classics and Letters Department to make you a good citizen, but critical thinking does make you a better citizen.”
English professor James Yoch explained how a liberal arts education is also essential to solving problems.
“With a multiplicity of people, liberal arts gives a way of diffusing these conflicts,” he said. “Imagination and words help solve the big problems in life.”
Liberal arts proponents emphasize that learning more than just a trade is essential for becoming a marketable job candidate.
“You are not learning a specific trade,” Cross said, “You are learning to be a better human in the best sense of the word.”