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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Brennan

What Can You do with a Liberal Arts Education?

Adapted from my address at the induction ceremony for the University at Albany’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, May 13, 2016

There are many people in America who question the value of a college degree in the liberal arts and sciences. They wonder “what can you do with a liberal arts and sciences education.” I’d like to suggest some answers to that question this afternoon.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for 30 years, starting with the night that the woman I was dating took me home to meet her parents. Her father was a pharmacist, and he asked me what I was studying.

I told him that I had earned a bachelor’s in English and Psychology and was now in graduate school, pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He gave me that look – one that I have since mastered as the father of a teenage girl – and he said, “what can you do with that?” – in a tone that implied “not much.”

I stumbled through some kind of explanation – but I suspect it wasn’t entirely convincing, because that relationship didn’t last too much longer. And that’s okay, because I ended up marrying the brilliant and beautiful daughter of a physicist and inventor, who didn’t need convincing of the value of a liberal arts and sciences education.

Now with 30 years behind me, I think I could give the pharmacist a much better answer. One that I hope reassures the parents in the room, who might be wondering why their brilliant child didn’t major in something practical, like accounting or nursing –degrees that come with guaranteed employment.

First, the data is clear – liberal arts and sciences graduates are doing just fine in the job market, thank you.

According to Phi Beta Kappa, • Between 2010 and 2013, the tech industry hired more liberal arts and sciences graduates than engineering and computer science graduates. • And 90 percent of the scientists who have won Nobel prizes say that the arts should be part of the education of everybody working in a technological field.

Large numbers of business executives say the same thing.

Why? Liberal arts and sciences graduates have the skills for success in today’s workplace. Skills like: • Thinking: gathering and evaluating information (“research”) • Communicating clearly and effectively • Working together to solve complex problems • Connecting with other people across cultural boundaries

In a world where technology changes all the time – these are the enduring skills that prepare people for workforce success.

One employer I talked to, a newspaper executive, told me, “I much prefer to hire liberal arts graduates – rather than students who went to journalism school. We can teach them what they need to know to be a good journalist.”

He went on to point out that he recently hired a biology major to work as an investigative journalist. “The scientific method is the way we want our reporters to work- remaining objective, gathering the data, testing hypotheses, and truthfully reporting conclusions.”

These insights are confirmed again and again in research.

For nearly 20 years, IBM has been surveying thousands of Chief Executive Officers from companies all around the world, asking what they think are the most important leadership qualities for success in business. The answers are surprising.

You might assume CEOs would say something like “operational skills” or being “tech-savvy.” But actually, the vast majority of CEOs say that the number one tool for leaders to be successful today is “creativity.”

And where do you learn creativity? In a liberal arts and sciences curriculum.

And when IBM asked these top executives what they’re looking for in the people they hire, they said that the most important attribute is strong ethics and values, followed by the ability to be collaborative and an orientation to purpose and mission. Ethics – teamwork – mission-driven. Exactly the traits that a liberal education helps people develop.

So fear not moms and dads. Your graduate is highly employable!

But employability isn’t the point of a liberal education. It’s only a byproduct.

The true value of a broad, humanistic education is that it prepares us to live lives of meaning as free men and free women.

We call it a liberal education because the root word of “liberal is the Latin word “liber” –which means a free person, in contrast to a “servus” or slave. We’re not talking about “liberal” as a point of view on a Sunday morning talk show. But rather as something that sets us free.

How does a liberal education set us free? I believe it does so by giving us the tools to understand how meaning is manufactured and transmitted – and the tools to actively participate in the construction of meaning.

The making of meaning is not an abstract academic construct. It’s absolutely fundamental to whether we will live as free persons or slaves.

You see, whoever controls the making of meaning controls how people see each other and the world around us. It is the ultimate tool of power in today’s world.

The first move of every dictator is to take control over the tools of meaning-making – a generation ago, that meant seizing the newspapers and the radio and television stations. Today, it also means controlling what happens online.

And whenever people want to wrest control back from those in power – they use tools for making shared meanings. Look at the role of social media, especially Twitter, in fostering the Arab Spring.

Moreover, a liberal education, I believe, increases our emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the capacity to recognize, understand and differentiate between emotions, and the ability to manage one’s own emotions and use these insights to guide thinking and behavior. This skill is really important for working successfully with other people – especially when working to solve challenging problems – which are situations when people’s emotions can be running high.

Studying literature and psychology, as I did, is one way to become familiar with emotions and develop the kind of savvy that it takes to manage your own emotions and work with others.

Developing our emotional intelligence allows us to have deeper and more fulfilling relationships with those around us. And it also helps us perform better in our roles as executives, leaders and professionals.

Dr. Abraham M. Nussbaum wrote about this recently in the Wall Street Journal. He talked about how as a young trainee, he was taught in ways that led him to see his patients as a “collection of parts” – he was losing sight of the person before him.

So Dr. Nussbaum took a leave of absence from medical school – and what did he do? He took courses in history, literature and theology. This coursework taught him how to better understand each individual patient. He is now one of a growing number of medical doctors insisting that the training of physicians include the humanities.

So – what can you do with an education in the liberal arts and sciences? Anything you want! You can find a fulfilling career. You can free yourself from ideas and beliefs imposed upon you. And you can connect more authentically and compassionately with other people.

This is why the symbol of Phi Beta Kappa – the honor society that recognizes undergraduates for high attainment in the liberal arts and sciences – is a key. It is the key that unlocks what the poet William Blake called “the mind-forged manacles.” Your liberal education is the basis for your life as a free person.

Your liberal education gives you the tools to think about a problem or a proposal from many different angles.

A liberal education challenges us to approach complex problems thoughtfully, looking at them from several perspectives. It teaches us to mistrust the simple solutions and move past the answers that come easily. It teaches us to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to bear. And it teaches us to listen not only with our ears but with our hearts as well.

Your liberal education has given you tremendous power. But with great power comes great responsibility. Your responsibility as an educated person now is to use the skills you’ve acquired to help make the world a better place. You are now equipped to be persuasive communicators – whether you’re a scientist using the power of numbers, or a humanities person using the power of words, sounds and images.

These powers will let you have tremendous influence on the people around you. Use the force for good Luke!

And I urge you to become an advocate for the value of a broad education in the liberal arts and sciences. This is particularly something that Phi Beta Kappa is urging all members to do because we live in a time when many people question the value of this kind of learning.

There are those who will want to reduce education to merely training for an occupation. Nothing wrong with vocational training – I think it is necessary in our complex and technological society. But this kind of education, while necessary, is not sufficient.

Every major problem we face today – ranging from chronic diseases, to income inequality, social justice, the environment, and education – all of the most pressing problems of our world are at bottom human problems. Science can give us new medicines – but if we can’t make them affordable for the vast numbers of poor people in the world they can’t cure any diseases. And we can engineer new technologies to protect against cyber-criminals, but if people fall victim to phishing scams then these technologies can’t protect our personal data.

This is why we need to make sure that a broad education in the humanities, arts and sciences continues to be available for our best and brightest young people. Our future depends on this.

Thank you for listening to me this afternoon. Inductees – welcome to Phi Beta Kappa. We hope that today is the start of a lifelong relationship with America’s oldest and most prestigious honor society. Faculty colleagues – thank you for passing the torch of a liberal education to the next generation. You are the heart and soul of our great university. And Parents and honored guests – thank you for your support for these young people. I urge you to continue to have faith in them. Fear not – they will go on to lead amazing lives. They are very, very employable – in jobs that pay a lot more than being a barista!

So what can you do with an education in the liberal arts and sciences? Anything your heart desires!

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