THE LIBERAL ARTS:
A 21ST-CENTURY DEGREE FOR DOING EVERYTHING IN EXCELLENCE
As we travel around the country speaking about the College and classical education, we are frequently asked two questions—what we call the “why” question and the “how” question”—about the liberal arts: Why should someone study at a liberal arts college in the 21st century? And how will it prepare a student for a job?
The underlying assumptions in those questions are that the liberal arts approach is outdated, and, consequently, cannot provide students with the skills they need to succeed in the modern economy. In fact, the typical argument goes further, claiming that the “hard skills” of science and business, in particular, demand a highly-specialized training from an early age.
Addressing these popular misconceptions is a key purpose of Wyoming Catholic College’s Career Development Program. Considering that one-third of Fortune 500 executives are graduates of liberal arts programs, that task may be easier than most people think.
Thus, in this introduction to Wyoming Catholic College’s Career Development Program, we explain not only how this program will revolutionize how liberal arts colleges prepare their students for their careers but also why liberal arts students—especially those at Wyoming Catholic—are uniquely prepared to flourish in the 21st-century economy.
The Argument For the Liberal Arts, based on Hard Numbers
While those arguments against studying the liberal arts are popular, the data— that’s right, the data— do not support them. None other than The Wall Street Journal has featured a number of articles in the last year which point to liberal arts education as being the best preparation for succeeding in the 21st-century economy. Consider, for example, the Journal’s November 2013 article, “Why Focusing Too Narrowly in College Could Backfire,” which argues that the trend toward specialization in college majors puts graduates at a disadvantage in an economy where people not only change employers—but professions—several times in their careers. Consequently, the nimble, liberal arts graduate, whose “specialization” is rooted in critical thinking, a broad base of knowledge, and interacting well with people, is at a significant advantage.
But what about salaries? In an era when students, parents, and high-ranking government officials are focused on maximizing the return on investment of college education, one recent study of 3 million Americans demonstrates that liberal arts programs are a considerably better investment than specialized programs. The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ January 2014 report, “How Liberal Arts Majors Fare in Employment,” shows that at peak earning ages (55 to 60 years) liberal arts majors earn more than their counterparts without liberal arts degree. Once again, over the span of a career, the core pillars of a liberal arts education—critical thinking, a broad base of knowledge, and the interaction with people—create employees who are flexible enough to transfer one area of knowledge to new situations.
In fact, that flexibility is important not only because its gives liberal arts majors significant professional range in their career, but it also gives them real-world experience before specializing themselves through further education. This latter point—further education—is no longer the bludgeon against the liberal arts, as more than half of all college graduates go on to graduate school. With so many specializing post-graduation, therefore, it would seem that this argument no longer holds water.
From an employer’s perspective, these attributes of liberally-trained graduates are particularly valuable now, given the dearth of applicants who possess both a specialized degree and these foundational characteristics of a great employee. In the simplest language, liberal learning prepares students to be people who are committed to their fellow humans—whether that be at work, at home, or in society. Ben Barber, in An Aristocracy for Everyone (1992) explains:
The fundamental task of education in a democracy is the apprenticeship of liberty—learning to be free... The literacy required to live in civil society, the competence to participate in democratic communities, the ability to think critically and act deliberately in a pluralistic world, the empathy that permits us to hear and thus accommodate others, all involve skills that must be acquired.
After reading these articles, we would like to turn the “why” question and the “how” question on their heads: Why wouldn’t someone study at a liberal arts college in the 21st Century? And how do those other programs prepare students for the modern economy? The onus is on the proponents of specialized education—not those of liberal education—to prove their case.
The Argument for the Liberal Arts, based on the Formation of People
But that’s not how we who are proponents of liberal arts education would frame the debate. Rather, we would emphasize the true merit of a liberal education: the formation of the whole person. Therein lies the real value of studying the liberal arts, for the very basis of liberal learning is to emphasize our innate desire for liberty, as ordered by the natural law and God, in every human being. As Russell Kirk, the 20th-century scholar of education, American politics, and religion said,
The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake. It ought not to be forgotten, in this mass-age when the state aspires to be all in all, that genuine education is something higher than an instrument of public policy…. Formal schooling actually commenced as an endeavor to acquaint the rising generation with religious knowledge: with awareness of the transcendent and with moral truths. Its purpose was not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.
The impact of liberal education forming the whole person is understood well by employers, who in increasing numbers are looking explicitly for liberal arts graduates. Even for employers who do not understand that foundation, they appreciate the result: joyful, engaging people who can think deeply, commit themselves wholesale to the mission of a company or organization, and excel at adapting to changing work environments. When understood in this light, the reality of why liberal arts graduates do well in the modern economy is clear.
On those grounds, specialized education fails miserably, for the very approach of the modern university is far from the original purpose of higher education: the pursuit of knowledge in its coherent whole, rooted in Truth, as an intrinsic good for the human person. Rather, on thousands of campuses around the country, students must navigate an educational environment with artificially-fractured disciplines, the result of which has been the destruction of the very concept of the university: after all, the very word “university” originates from the Latin universitas, which is “the whole” or “the universe.” It is not a coincidence that at the same time our postmodern society has subverted the pursuit of truth and undermined the institution of marriage that the modern American “multiversity” has been the vehicle for their demise.
Ironically, what John Henry Newman observed in the 19th century is especially true today: students “leave their place of education simply dissipated and relaxed by the multiplicity of subjects, which they have never really mastered, and so shallow as not even to know their shallowness” (On the Scope and Nature of University Education, p. 126).
To be frank, that lack of foundation in knowledge leads to the absence of those attributes that employers find so prevalent among liberal arts graduates: critical thinking, foundational knowledge, and people skills. Unfortunately, the reason for that—at least on many college campuses—is the degradation of the human person to a mere cog in the mechanistic wheel of the economy. In short, liberal arts graduates understand that the source of their freedom is in God’s natural law, and it is that knowledge that makes them so appealing as colleagues. It is no coincidence, therefore, that liberal arts graduates, regardless of the stage of their career, are the happiest, most prepared, most fulfilled employees—no doubt the result of seeing a unit of knowledge, a truth, a set of “permanent things” that bind together what they have learned.
Why Wyoming Catholic College
’s Leadership Formation Matters
If our programs at Wyoming Catholic College merely immersed our students in the Great Books and Great Ideas of Western Civilization, then our graduates would still be excellent colleagues, citizens, and Christians; we take our formation one step further, however, by combining that intellectual formation with an emphasis on experiential learning, mainly in God’s First Book, nature. As a result, early in their time here, our students develop a keen sense of magnanimity—the striving for lofty, noble goals that are rooted in placing the common good above their self-interest. It is that aspect of our education and formation that, most simply and most importantly, forms students into adults who want to be the mission-driven, joyful members of any team, whether that be in a place of employment, in a church parish, or in a civic organization.
We do that with a wonderfully old-fashioned approach. By that, we are not referring to the liberal arts! Rather, our students begin their studies at Wyoming Catholic College with a three-week backpacking trip in the rugged Rocky Mountains nearby. It is on that expedition that our freshmen learn the teamwork, leadership, and fortitude that distinguishes them from their peers. By replicating that experience several times throughout our students’ four years here, we continue to hone those old-fashioned—but enduring and very timely—skills.
Thus, if someone were to ask about Wyoming Catholic College’s ‘secret sauce’ in its recipe for human formation, we would answer that it is the combination of being formed intellectually within a coherent whole, while being challenged physically within God’s First Book, and, always rooted in a deep spiritual formation in both venues.
Our Career Development Program
Understanding that popular misconceptions about liberal arts graduates are—well, popular—we have decided to use one of our own core lessons here and take action. By developing and implementing a comprehensive career development program, we aim not only to connect our students with a large network of potential employers, but also to “preach the good news” about liberal arts education.
This program extends well beyond the typical, passive “career office” approach. Rather, our system involves a high level of activity by mentors, whether they be faculty members or people outside the College, and by our students and alumni. We begin the process early by assisting students with their vocational and avocational discernment, and then steadily scaffold the process so that with each passing semester, students are becoming more aware of how their own gifts and skills match with certain internship and job opportunities. The College continues this program for our alumni, who even in the early phases of their careers, have shown the value of a liberal arts education at Wyoming Catholic College.
How You Can Help
Whether you are an employer or a prospective parent, we trust that the program we have developed convinces you that liberal arts graduates are not at a disadvantage as they begin their careers; in fact, as the evidence clearly indicates, liberal arts graduates have distinct advantages in the ever-changing modern economy. Moreover, in a society that has such a dire need for joyful witnesses in every arena of the public square, programs that focus on forming the whole person are particularly timely.
We encourage you, therefore, to delve into the details of our Career Development Program—as well as the details of our education and formation. Thereafter, I’d be grateful for your assistance in posting internship and employment opportunities for our students and alumni. The key purpose of this program, of course, is not merely to connect a student with a mere job, but to link students and employers in a way that continues the formation of both. After all, if we are, in fact, serious about providing hope for a listless society, then starting with the apostolate of friendship is a most important step.
When we say that at Wyoming Catholic we will help the culture, the country, and the Church, we are not being abstract or trite. What we mean is that our students and graduates, when working as interns and employees, will bring to their work a sense of mission. They see all of their professional steps as part of their vocation. And whether the task is big or small, they will bring a joyful zeal that, when combined with the several-hundred-year-old tradition of the liberal arts, produces a unique employee. We are inspired by the words of Blessed John Henry Newman: “We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away; we perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own” (Idea of a University, p. 123). In a word, they will be nothing less than excellent.