We’ve all heard the jokes about liberal arts majors, inspired by stereotypes that students in the humanities, social sciences and languages are destined to lives of underemployment:
The science major asks, “Why does it work?”
The engineering major asks, “How does it work?”
The business major asks, “How much will it cost?”
The liberal arts major asks, “Do you want fries with that?”
What the joke suggests is that choosing a non-liberal arts major is a practical choice that leads to a practical career. Not only is this implication untrue, it undermines the reason we established universities in the first place.
“Utilitarian arguments are easier to make because they are so prima facie — doing this will get you this,” says Jeremi Suri, professor and Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs in the Department of History and the LBJ School. “But higher education doesn’t really exist for those purposes. If all we cared about was material accomplishment, we wouldn’t have a democracy, because democracy is not purely about materialism; it’s about meaningfulness.”
A Search for Meaning
Just ask Larry Temple (BBA 1957, LL.B 1959), who knows a thing or two about higher education. A respected Austin attorney who among other things has served as chairman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and president of the Texas Exes and the LBJ Foundation (where he is currently chairman), the unassuming Temple will tell you that he made a “terrible mistake” when he switched his major from the liberal arts to business administration.
He is not suggesting that business administration is a poor choice for a major, but looking back at his turn from the liberal arts made him realize that there was more to going to college than pursuing a career.
“I remember a great quote from (German statesman) Konrad Adenauer: ‘We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.’ I always thought that what a great university can do and should do is change a person’s horizons — to expose students to the classics, to expose them to history, to expose them to all of the areas that are the foundation of learning and education,” says Temple. “That is what liberal arts has always done and still needs to do.
“I do think there’s learning for the sake of learning, for the fun of learning, for the general benefit of people,” says Temple, who served on the committee that defined UT Austin’s core values and purpose. “We talk about the university’s core values and core purpose — transforming lives for the benefit of society — you benefit society by the educational process. It’s not just to have specific training.”
Rather, it is in the liberal arts where a student finds what Suri calls meaningfulness, the ability to connect one’s activities — whether you are a businessperson, teacher, farmer, lawyer or politician — to higher principles, higher ethics and higher virtues. It is what makes the American system of higher education unique because its purpose is much more about making citizens and leaders than making workers.
“We’re different because we believe you need something more … to be a great citizen and leader, to be in touch with this deeper discussion about justice and equality and liberty — key words in our history — that’s what an educated person is,” says Suri. “That is why Sam Houston and (Mirabeau) Lamar wanted to have a great university in Texas. It was not because they simply wanted people to know more of what they already knew; it was that they wanted to expose them to different things.”
Suri says that when Texas settlers sought to establish a “university of the first class,” they wanted people of Sam Houston’s caliber who would be able to go toe to toe with their northeastern rivals on any issue.
“We send people to universities — and we always have — to develop that breadth of vision and that integrative capability, to work with very different kinds of people,” he says. “You develop that by reading some of the best ideas that have ever been articulated, from Plato and Shakespeare forward, and coming into contact with and learning about ideas that are very different from your own.
“The way you go toe to toe with someone if you have a different point of view is to actually understand his or her point of view,” says Suri. “No matter what your politics are, your community needs people who are able to draw on the best of ideas and are comfortable interacting with people who have different ideas. That’s the world we live in.”
Paul Woodruff has been thinking a lot about leadership these days. A Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Philosophy and former dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies, he is currently finishing a book that addresses what universities should do to justify the claim that their graduates are prepared to be leaders.
“I started out to write a book about leadership, not to defend the liberal arts or make an argument on behalf of them,” says Woodruff. “I found that all of what is really important is primarily found in the liberal arts — how to communicate, understanding the human situation, history, literature, social science. Business schools use social science, but social science really belongs to us, organizational psychology belongs to us, and sociology belongs to us.”
He says the humanities, rooted in ancient times, are even more important than the social sciences for giving future leaders the knowledge and understanding they are going to need in a complex and rapidly changing world.
“My book begins with this sentence: ‘Alexander the Great had Aristotle.’ You can go from there … whom do you have?”
Bridging a Divide
Underlying the jokes about liberal arts majors is the notion that students face a distinct choice between a STEM field (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and a liberal arts education. Some even view them in conflict, particularly when money and resources are at stake.
Increased specialization in the professions, particularly during the second half of the 20th century, has partly contributed to this rift. After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, it was scientists we wanted, not poets.
However, few considered that scientists might actually need poets and vice versa.
“Science is part of the humanities. Scientists traditionally were humanists,” says Woodruff, who believes it was a mistake when some universities, including UT Austin, divided their arts and sciences colleges into liberal arts and natural sciences. “The silo effect is terrible for students and faculty … there are so many areas in which we need to be talking across colleges, and it’s really hard to do sometimes.”
Indeed, Suri maintains that it is the mixing of arts and sciences that fosters true innovation at American universities.
“You are not a true innovator just because you’ve seen a problem in a new way and you found a market for it. That’s obviously important, but you are an innovator because you’ve brought together big ideas from different places,” he says. “That is the Steve Jobs story. It’s not that he created a new kind of computing, but he innovated in the way we think about it.”
Suri says the liberal arts prepare students to be lifelong learners who are able throughout their lives to adjust and to learn so that they can be innovative in their work as well as in the variety of jobs they are able to master. He adds that most people who have successful careers have five to six different kinds of jobs.
“This notion that you are going to get a higher education to prepare for a job and that we are going to measure your institution by the earning power of your graduates … is absolutely silly, even in the most utilitarian terms,” Suri says. “The most exciting and well-compensated jobs 10 years from now are jobs that don’t exist today. If we are training people when they come into the university for the job we see being there in four years, we’re training them to be behind.”
Nevertheless, with the rising costs of higher education there is tremendous pressure on students — whether self-imposed or from parents — driving them toward areas of study that they believe will land them lucrative jobs, especially if there are loans to pay off.
“There is a wonderful inclination among a lot of students that when they get to the university and realize there is a whole big world out there they have not seen before that they would like to explore and expand their minds,” says Temple. “But then they ask, ‘How am I going to pay for all of that?’”
He says if a state really wants an institution of the first class, it has to be a priority of government and business leaders alike to take the lead in talking about investment in higher education as a benefit of society, and to find a way for financial aid programs to lessen the burden on students who want to study in the liberal arts.
It would help if leaders looked at actual data instead of relying on common stereotypes. For example, a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that liberal arts majors, at peak earning ages, earn about $2,000 more than pre-professional and professional majors.
In the July 29, 2015, issue of Forbes, George Anders writes that the “useless” liberal arts degree was becoming tech’s hottest ticket. He noted that of 3,426 LinkedIn members who graduated from Northwestern University and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, only 30 percent were in engineering, research or information technology. The other jobs, ranging from marketing to business development, “were held by people who majored in psychology, history, gender studies and the like, and they quickly surpass the totals for engineering and computer science.”
Anders adds: “Run the numbers on recent graduates of Boston University, The University of Texas at Austin or any of the University of California campuses, and the hiring pattern in Silicon Valley is seen to be broadly similar.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to state aid for public universities, the political rhetoric overwhelmingly suggests that states should invest in STEM rather than the liberal arts.
“There are people out there who want to convert our major universities into trade schools; that is the danger we’ve got to fight and avoid,” says Temple. “If they say a university education is about training to get a job, that really does convert it into a trade school as opposed to an educational enterprise.”
The danger of tying higher education to jobs and economic growth has been on his mind for some time. When the Board of Regents conferred the Santa Rita Award on Temple in 1989 following his work as chairman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, he delivered a speech that is still widely circulated today. The following year the board established the Larry Temple Scholarship Endowment, awarding scholarships to students in the College of Liberal Arts.
“When I received the Santa Rita Award, I was trying to combat what I was hearing at the time that we needed to expand higher education everywhere so people could bring in new industries,” he says. “I was trying to say that in my view that was not the purpose of higher education at a great university.”
In his speech he observed that education is integral to the entire economy of a nation and is essential to commerce and industry. It generates the organizations and the tools and technology to support civilization. But they are byproducts that come out of an intangible product — the expansion of human knowledge. He continued:
… I suggest that when we grapple with the public policy issues of education in Texas, we should never lose sight of the real reason we are doing it. We are doing it not just for the economic benefit of Texas. That’s an investment that all too easily could be postponed from one budget cycle to another. Rather, the purpose of our educational enterprise is for both the advancement and the transmission to the next generation of human knowledge. That human investment is postponed only at our peril.
For the Sake of Learning
The liberal arts are not about getting everyone to agree on the solutions, but rather to recognize certain commonalities in the world that define who we are as human beings, says Suri. That’s where the interesting conversation occurs, but society too often jumps to solutions without first understanding the human realities.
An engineering major can answer the question, “How does it work?” But a liberal arts major puts the “it” — whether “it” is a computer, a fighter jet, or a cloned embryo — into a human context. By the same token, liberal arts majors also need a basic understanding of the sciences. This is not a new idea. In medieval European universities, the seven liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric and logic (the trivium); and geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy (the quadrivium).
“We are teaching people at the university to be thinkers and learners. To be a thinker or learner in our society means you have to read a lot and write well, and you have to understand many scientific principles, how computing and modern communications work,” says Suri.“You don’t have to be able to fix your car, but you better understand the political implications of where you build roads and where you don’t build roads. It’s in the thinking, learning, and learning how to learn that STEM and the liberal arts come together.”
That is why Larry Temple values today’s core curriculum, which wasn’t in place when he was an undergraduate: “The reason we have liberal arts for all students —whether they ultimately go into business administration or engineering or pharmacy — is that they get that undergirding of a broader education.”
It is an education that not only imparts knowledge and skills, but also leads one to new horizons and a richer, more meaningful life.
“That’s one of the reasons people in life, after they are out of college, go to museums to see art — it’s not to make money, it’s not a part of their job,” says Temple. “The reason people read for pleasure, visit museums or go to lectures is because they want the enjoyment of learning for the sake of learning. To stay informed for the purpose of staying informed. That is beneficial to us personally and as a society, and the genesis of that comes from the liberal arts part of a college education.”
And there’s nothing funny about that.