Many of us committed to the liberal arts have been defensive for as long as we can remember.
We have all cringed when we have heard a version of the following joke: The graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?”; the graduate with an engineering degree asks, “How does it work?”; the graduate with a liberal arts degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”
We have responded to such mockery by proclaiming the value of the liberal arts in the abstract: it creates a well-rounded person, is good for democracy, and develops the life of the mind. All these are certainly true, but somehow each misses the point that the joke drives home. Today’s college students and their families want to see a tangible financial outcome from the large investment that is now American higher education. That doesn’t make them anti-intellectual, but simply realists. Outside of home ownership, a college degree might be the largest single purchase for many Americans.
There is a disconnect as parents and students worry about economic outcomes when too many of us talk about lofty ideals. More families are questioning both the sticker price of schools and the value of whole fields of study. It is natural in this environment for us to feel defensive. It is time, however, that we in the liberal arts understand this new environment, and rather than merely react to it, we need to proactively engage it. To many Americans the liberal arts have a luxury they feel they need to give up to make a living -- nice but impractical. We need to speak more concretely to the economic as well as the intellectual value of a liberal arts degree.
The liberal arts always situate graduates on the road for success. More Fortune 500 CEOs have had liberal arts B.A.s than professional degrees. The same is true of doctors and lawyers. And we know the road to research science most often comes through a liberal arts experience. Now more than ever, as employment patterns seem to be changing, we need to engage the public on the value of a liberal arts degree in a more forceful and deliberate way.
We are witnessing an economic shift that may be every bit as profound as the shift from farm to factory. Today estimates are that over 25 percent of the American population is working as contingent labor -- freelancers, day laborers, consultants, micropreneurs.
Sitting where we do it is easy to dismiss this number because we assume it comes from day laborers and the working class, i.e., the non-college-educated. But just look at higher education's use of adjuncts and you see the trend. The fastest-growing sector of this shift is in the formally white-collar world our students aspire to. This number has been steadily rising and is projected to continue its upward climb unchanged. We are living in a world where 9:00-5:00 jobs are declining, careers with one company over a lifetime are uncommon, and economic risk has shifted from large institutions to individuals. Our students will know a world that is much more unstable and fluid than the one of a mere generation ago.
We have known for many years that younger workers (i.e., recent college graduates) move from firm to firm, job to job and even career to career during their lifetime. What we are seeing now, however, is different. And for as many Americans, they are hustling from gig to gig, too. These workers, many our former students, may never know economic security, but they may know success. For many of the new-economy workers, success is measured by more than just money, as freedom, flexibility and creativity count too.
If this is the new economy our students are going to inherit, we as college and university administrators, faculty and staff need to take stock of the programs we offer (curricular as well as extracurricular) to ensure that we serve our students' needs and set them on a successful course for the future. The skills they will need may be different from those of their predecessors. Colleges and universities with a true culture of assessment already are making the necessary strategic adjustments.
In 1956, William Whyte, the noted sociologist, wrote The Organizational Man to name the developing shift in work for that generation. Whyte recognized that white-collar workers traded independence for stability and security. What got them ahead in the then-new economy was the ability to fit in (socialization) and a deep set of narrow vocational skills. Firms at the time developed career ladders, and successful junior executives who honed their skills and got along advanced up the food chain.
Today, no such career ladder exists. And narrow sets of skills may not be the ticket they once were. We are witnessing a new way of working developing before our eyes. Today, breadth, cultural knowledge and sensitivity, flexibility, the ability to continually learn, grow and reinvent, technical skills, as well as drive and passion, define the road to success. And liberal arts institutions should take note, because this is exactly what we do best.
For liberal arts educators, this economic shift creates a useful moment to step out of the shadows. We no longer need to be defensive because what we have to offer is now more visibly useful in the world. Many of the skills needed to survive and thrive in the new economy are exactly those a well-rounded liberal arts education has always provided: depth, breadth, knowledge in context and motion, and the search for deeper understanding.
It will not be easy to explain to future students and their parents that a liberal arts degree may not lead to a particular “job” per se, because jobs in the traditional sense are disappearing. But, we can make a better case about how a liberal arts education leads to both a meaningful life and a successful career.
In this fluid world, arts and sciences graduates may have an advantage. They can seek out new opportunities and strike quickly. They are innovative and nimble. They think across platforms, understand society and culture, and see technology as a tool rather than an end in itself. In short, liberal arts graduates have the tools to make the best out of the new economy. And, above all, we need to better job identifying our successes, our alumni, as well as presenting them to the public. We need to ensure that the public knows a liberal arts degree is still, and always has been, a ticket to success.
This could be a moment for the rebirth of the liberal arts. For starters, we are witnessing exciting new research about the economy that is situating the discussion more squarely within the liberal arts orbit, and in the process blurring disciplinary boundaries. These scholars are doing what the American studies scholar Andrew Ross has called “scholarly reporting,”  a blend of investigative reporting, social science and ethnography, as a way to understand the new economy shift. Scholars such as the sociologists Dalton Conley and Sharon Zurkin and the historian Bryant Simon offer new models of engaged scholarship that explain the cultural parameters of the new economy. We need to recognize and support this research because increasingly we will need to teach it as the best way to ensure our students understand the moment.
We also need to be less territorial, and recognize that the professional schools are not the enemy. They have a lot to offer our students. Strategic partnerships between professional schools and the arts and sciences enrich both and offer liberal arts students important professional opportunities long closed off to them. We also need to find ways to be good neighbors to the growing micropreneurial class, either by providing space, wifi, or interns. Some schools have created successful incubators, which can jump-start small businesses and give their students important ground-floor exposure to the emerging economy.
Today’s liberal arts graduates will need to function in an economy that is in some ways smaller. Most will work for small firms and many will simply work on their own. They will need to multitask as well as blend work and family. And, since there will be little budget or time for entry-level training, we need to ensure that all our students understand the basics of business even if they are in the arts. We also might consider preparing our graduates as if they were all going to become small business owners, because in a sense many of them are going to be micropreneurs.
Richard A Greenwald is dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, director of university partnerships, and professor of history at Drew University in Madison, N.J. His next book is entitled The Micropreneurial Age: The Permanent Freelancer and the New American (Work)Life.