Is there any point to a liberal arts major?

Disclaimer:  I understand that for those of us who have already graduated from college (or not gone to college at all), the die is cast and people tend to get testy and heated when they are forced to consider what they might have done differently.  It’s not my intention to make anyone feel uncomfortable or accuse them of having made a mistake – this article is only meant for those who are currently discerning their future or as one man’s opinion on the future and necessity of the humanities.  So don’t sweat it big guy, you’re pretty just the way you are.

A bunch of ink has been spilled over the last few years about the value (if any) in pursuing a degree in the humanities.  Here’s my story:  I began college in engineering with a second major in philosophy – engineering cut too much into my drinking and YouTube time, so I dropped it and kept the philosophy major, because at the time I thought I wanted to be a lawyer (for some fucked up reason, probably too much TV… Imagine what might have happened if Suits had been on at that time and I was too young to appreciate how disconnected from the realities of corporate law whoever writes that show is).  Philosophy was supposed to be good for law school, and somehow I got into it in high school.  At least until I found out that summer (through what turned out to be a fortuitous job shadowing opportunity) that I couldn’t fucking stand the minutia involved in the legal profession.  I then realized I had a problem – what else is there to do with a philosophy major?  I’m supposed to major in something that interests me, right?  The philosophy department tried to convince me that there were numerous philosophy majors occupying the most prestigious offices of corporate America, which in retrospect is basically akin to saying “Sure, you should totally drop out of college.  Look at Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – seemed to work out well for them.”

As the job market has become saturated with college degrees, there is now a premium placed on specialized degrees, stuff that is immediately practical and applicable.  In the days of our parents (and more importantly, the days of philosophy department counselors) college degrees were less abundant and as such general fields of study (i.e. English, history, political science, philosophy, etc.) were adequate.  Additionally, the demand for college has grown such that the price of a college education has skyrocketed, making it very costly to pursue degrees that don’t have immediate and profound monetary benefits.

Eventually (though not soon enough to land an internship that did not involved construction (which isn’t really an internship just as much as opening a bar does not constitute a “start-up”, so you people doing that please stop)) I decided I liked finance enough to make a career out of it, so I switched my major to that, while keeping philosophy as a second major (much to the chagrin of the philosophy department).  I thus managed to land a decent job and have since moved onto greener pastures in investment banking.

So first off, I think it’s disingenuous for liberal arts departments around the country to try to talk people into majoring solely in the humanities and that those degrees are just as valuable as the more specialized fields of engineering, biochemistry, business, etc.  The world doesn’t work like that (most unfortunately) anymore.

Philosophy made a bitch out of my GPA, and in the finance world (especially in the midst of a challenging economic climate), having a mediocre GPA is kind of like being a dude of mediocre height and mediocre weight with a mediocre hairline – you can still get laid (hired) but probably not by your first choice.  Or second.  Or tenth.  Philosophy classes are incredibly difficult to ace, not to mention sucking time away from business class studying.  However, if I had the opportunity to decide again, I would major in philosophy every time (on the understanding that I could keep the finance major as well).

In other words, you should major in something that will make you hire-able by someone that isn’t going to pay you an hourly wage.  College is too expensive to do otherwise.  Plus, it’s four years of your life – if you’re going to wind up working at Starbucks anyway, you might as well get a head start right out of high school.  That said, I wholeheartedly recommend supplementing such a technical major with a liberal arts major, for two primary reasons:

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking happens to some degree in all fields of study, but the kind of critical thinking required in the liberal arts is wholly dissimilar from those in the more technical fields.  There are no right answers in the humanities – your evaluation is based on qualifying your arguments, sharp comparison, and defense of your interpretations.  The kind of thinking required in expounding upon the motifs of Great Expectations just flat out does not occur in engineering.  Or business.  Or whatever.  And this serves well in any job – in the real world there is no solutions manual.  That said, there aren’t many jobs that are based solely on this type of thinking (outside of being a writer which basically requires a few years of minimum wage employment).  In other words, critical thinking is great, but you need to bring some technical expertise to the table.

Writing Proficiency

Don’t get me wrong – some people are good writers without ever having taken a humanities class.  However, it is nearly impossible to get above a C in a humanities class without being a good writer (i.e. Humanities majors are good writers, but not all good writers are humanities majors.  A wild syllogism appears!  Yay philosophy!).  Jokes aside about the quality of my own writing, writing is hard.  It requires mastery and clear command of the language, and I can promise you that most of my finance-only team members in college could have really benefited from some extra exposure to the critical evaluations of a philosophy professor. Again – this isn’t enough to get you a job, but once you have a job it really makes you stand out.

A common (and short-sighted) criticism (I call it the Good Will Hunting criticism) is that you can study philosophy/English/history/etc. on your own time with a library card, saving you time, money, and college experience.  Trust me – it takes a special kind of masochist to sit down in your free time and force yourself to grasp the impact and nuance of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (and if you’re going to teach yourself philosophy you can’t really skip this).  Plus, the same can be said for many other more technical fields of study – mathematics and physics (for engineering), computer science, and business (I learned more finance studying by myself for the CFA than I ever did in college) can all be self-taught.  Not easily, but neither can a college-level education in the liberal arts.


Title Photo Credit: flickr
Photo Credit: flickr