Who's Afraid of the Liberal Arts?

Reading last month's USA Today article, "Picking College, Major, Comes Down to Money," I felt a touch of déjà vu. As the president of a New England liberal arts college, I field questions regarding college affordability and practicality about as often as I sit at my desk (if such questions can even wait until I'm seated). My colleagues in higher education administration have indeed been faced with the challenge to prove our worth in preparing the next generation of leaders and innovators. These are important, productive conversations and, frankly, I welcome the dialogue. It opens the door to articulating the benefits of an education I believe still stands as the model for the world.

That is why I would encourage parents and students who are nervous about the practical applications of an English degree, or career prospects for a history major, to reconsider the straight, causal line they've drawn between college major and professional success. I've spent the past eight years of my sociological research studying the lives of 550 senior leaders--top CEOs, people in senior positions in government -- the Who's Who of the American elite; and the fact is, many earned a liberal arts degree. Part of my research included a close examination of the prestigious White House Fellowship -- and 73 percent of those young leaders had a liberal arts degree. You can draw a connection between senior leadership potential and a broad, liberal arts education.

More anecdotally: I myself was an English major; I went on to earn advanced degrees in theology and sociology; now I work in college administration. Along the way, I've worked as a pollster and held a position with a computer training company. And I couldn't overemphasize how important each previous, seemingly detached endeavor has been to the one that followed.

The notion that success depends on a student plugging him -- or herself into one of a discreet set of traditionally promising majors rests on an outmoded understanding of vocational preparation. Certainly, the twentieth century was an era of specialization, with a number of highly specific majors ballooning to match the highly specific requirements of a specialized job market. But our 21st century has already demonstrated that it will be an era of integration, not specialization. Those most likely to make an impact in this new generation will have a broad, holistic knowledge base and a drive to connect disparate interests through innovative problem solving. As I've noted before, the liberal arts approach prepares students to think holistically, drawing together many schools of thought and disciplinary approaches.

Indeed, the pendulum of popular opinion may have already begun its swing back toward a healthy respect for the humanities and social sciences. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences -- a large cohort of public and private sector leaders and educators including presidents of major corporations and universities -- recently released a report, The Heart of the Matter, which stresses the indispensability of the disciplines. What's more, it does so chiefly by considering who is fit to lead in the 21st century: "Who will lead America into a bright future?" the report asks. Their answer? "Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce..." The Commission understands the vital importance of holistic thinking in the century to come.

None of this, of course, means to imply that a student's specific major is insignificant. On the contrary, one's major can influence the very core of one's worldview, interests and aspirations. A student who studies linguistics is not likely to move directly into a Ph.D. program in cellular biology. Yet a student's chosen major will not, in most cases, determine the financial viability of his or her long-term career. Students from any major can use their time at college to explore practical ways to turn their academic passion into a good investment. At my institution, we point frequently to the catalytic effect of close personal mentoring relationships with accomplished faculty, to perspective-broadening study-abroad programs, and to the skill- and network-building advantages of professional internships -- all of which are key in giving our graduates an edge in the highly competitive job market of the past decade.

The success of the next generation of college graduates will come down to commitment, creativity, resourcefulness, and a bit of wise planning. Today, an average college student switches his or her major approximately four times before graduating -- and this is not a bad thing. The last thing the job market needs right now is a surplus of disaffected pre-professional majors with no real interest in contributing anything extraordinary to the community they are preparing to work within. Our economy -- and our culture as a whole -- needs young people with passion and ingenuity, and I've found no better institutions to cultivate these strengths than liberal arts colleges. We are still the gold standard for the world.