One brisk morning last winter on my way to class at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I parallel parked behind a car that sported an encouraging bumper sticker. It read, “The more you know, the less you need.” Being an English major, this quote had the same effect a warm cup of coffee might. It warmed me up and comforted me. I know that my educational path is the right one for me. An English degree requires almost no knowledge of computers, and it definitely doesn’t require business knowledge. Consequently, I am forced to field the question, “What are you going to do with an English degree?” A fair and valid question, no doubt, but one I am tired of dealing with. I walk from lecture to lecture prepared to defend the department I am enrolled in. This article aims to be an extension of that defense with the hope that if people know what kinds of skills a liberal arts degree cultivates, then maybe they won’t feel the need to ask, “What are you going to do with an English degree?”
A liberal arts education fosters the ability to think abstractly and critically. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, explains the importance of this type of education: “Creative intellectual energy is what drives our [American] system forward. The ability to think abstractly will be increasingly important along a broad range of professions.” This is not to say, however, that vocational schools do not foster the ability to think abstractly, but it is not the purpose of such an education. The purpose of vocational schools is to train students exclusively in one field. In other words, a vocational school is designed to put all of the eggs in one basket, and a liberal arts degree is designed to put multiple eggs in a wide variety of baskets.
With the rapid advancements of technology, does it even make sense to graduate with a degree in computer science? Sure, the skills learned in a computer science program are definitely advantageous when entering the workforce, but constant training is required in order to keep up with technological advances. Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, says, “A successful liberal arts education develops the capacity for innovation and for judgment. Those who can reconfigure existing resources and project future results will be the shapers of our economy and culture.”
In addition, Dr. Charles Johanningsmeier, professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, predicts, “Nothing against computer graduates, but if they are thinking of a college degree as a vocational one, then they’re going to plateau pretty quickly in the work world.” This is because liberal arts majors are required to enroll in a wide variety of classes. When asked what kinds of jobs his former students have landed, he responded, “Web-page editor for a Fortune 500 company, vice president of public relations for Qwest (now Century Link), a lawyer, and a medical office manager.” He summed up this list with, “I could go on and on.”
In relation to the current job market, liberal arts majors have an advantage over vocational students. A spokesperson for Con-Agra Foods of Omaha says, “Technical talent is no longer enough.” In addition, when asked about the requirements of potential hires, a spokesperson from Google says, “We’re looking for people who have a variety of strengths and passions, not just isolated skill sets.” Google has long been considered one of the most innovative technological companies in the world, and if they aren’t hiring isolated skill sets (vocational students), then who are they hiring? Johanningsmeier explained a few of the advantageous characteristics of a liberal arts student: “The modern professional work world needs people who can ask critical questions in certain situations and who can research the answers. Furthermore, employers need people who have solid communication (both oral and written) skills. All of these are attributes that successful liberal arts majors have.”
My defense of a liberal arts education isn’t meant to be a jab at vocational students; it is meant to put into writing an answer to the question I get asked all the time: “What are you going to do with an English degree?” I do not know for certain what I will do, but I do know that I have a lot of choices because my eggs aren’t all in one basket, and I feel liberated.