Marc Vogl: The Value of a Liberal Arts Degree

Saturday, November 19, 2022 - 00:57

College students are turning away from degrees in the liberal arts and Marc Vogl says we are all the poorer for it.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that bachelor's degrees awarded in Computer Science rose by 62,000 in the last ten years – an increase of 144%. The number of students graduating with History degrees fell by 23,000, or 35%.

The numbers are also rocketing up for degrees in engineering, natural resources, and math; and are in free fall for those majoring in English, foreign languages, religious, ethnic, cultural and gender studies.

One interpretation is that students who went to college after the 2007-2008 recession were acutely aware that their college degree – their very expensive college degree – needed to set them up for a high paying job. And the money, over the last 10 years, has been in the energy, pharmaceutical and tech sectors. Nothing wrong with that on the face of it.

But, in aggregate the story of a workforce - much less a generation – that is oversupplied with STEM majors and under supplied with Humanities majors worries me. And, if you care about hyper partisanship, polarization and how our Democratic institutions will survive if we can’t find common ground, then you should worry too.




It’s easy to caricature those who spend their college years studying poetry, philosophy, or art history as intellectuals who won’t cure cancer, create jobs, or contribute much to our GDP.

But if I said to you every History major in college today is learning how to gather and analyze objective facts, every English major is learning how to value perspectives other than their own, and every Humanities student is earning a degree in listening, empathy, and solving difficult problems with people who think differently, you might say those are just the skills we need.

I’m 50 years old and I can’t recall the syllabus of the Harlem Renaissance poetry course I took when I first got to college, or the chronology of the Civil War battles we studied in Professor Thomas’ seminar, but the training I developed as a reader to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and as a writer to take contradictory information and tell a coherent story, helps me every day as I try to organize my thoughts in a world where politicians can’t agree on facts, and where the public increasingly only hears voices they already know.

So, if you’re a parent anxiously listening as your child calls home from college to tell you they’re majoring in semiotics or sociology, or if you’re a student not quite sure what you’ll do with that liberal arts degree, I’d say: don’t worry so much. For the near term, I think odds are pretty good that your skills as a critical thinker, a clear communicator, and a creative collaborator will be very much in demand.

With a Perspective, I’m Marc Vogl.

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