Personal Economy and Liberal Arts

Yes, it matters what our students major in -- but it may matter less than their maturity and perseverance and other interpersonal skills, writes Lee Williams.

March 13, 2014

I recently sat through another compelling defense of the liberal arts, although I hardly needed to be in the choir again. I sing loudly from the song sheet, being both the recipient of a liberal arts education and an employee of a college deeply committed to this work. I am surrounded every day by the very evidence that its defenders offer in support of the necessary existence of this uniquely American construct.

But I am troubled by what is not often said. I interact daily with students who will soon be on the job market as well as recent graduates who have entered that same tough market, and I have come to realize that the arguments in favor of, or against, the wonders of a liberal arts education tell only half the story. There is an equation at work in determining the likelihood of success, and it is an equation too often overlooked in our defense of the liberal arts: the one that calculates the value of character and personal skills. 

I can hardly count the number of times in recent months I have heard successful people share with audiences that they are liberal arts graduates. These speakers are often on the dais because of their success.  "I was an English major -- British lit to be specific!" "I majored in philosophy, double-minored in French and chemistry!"

And look at them now: accomplished, articulate, passionate. They are in business, in education, in social services, politics and medicine. They are entrepreneurs, thought leaders, successful artists and authors.  “Look!” they say. “A liberal arts education can lead to great career opportunities and even more. My liberal arts background has prepared me to constantly retool, to be a lifelong learner, to ask big questions and solve big problems." 

It absolutely can, but it is not enough. Nor is it enough to major in business, or engineering, or anything, for that matter. It is no longer enough to lay claim to a particular educational background. Professional success and personal satisfaction can certainly come to someone who majored in political science or sociology, but not just because of that major, or in spite of it. 

These people on the dais were most likely the students who, regardless of major, just did things well. They came to class having done the reading. They turned in assignments and participated appropriately in group work.  They spoke up when asked a question, and listened when others spoke, and in doing so, learned something. They did not miss three classes after a fight with a boy/girlfriend. They did not bail on a group project because their classmates made them uncomfortable. They managed bad news with some degree of equanimity.

Then they graduated, and succeeded in whatever place they found themselves -- showing up for work, doing what was asked, accepting criticism, improving.

As a dean of students I interact regularly with students on two ends of a wide spectrum.  On one end are student leaders -- student government officers, resident advisers, peer leaders, team captains.  On the other end are students who are struggling mightily.  Perhaps it's a lack of resilience that has led them to my office, realizing they are going to fail a class or two or all of them.  Or they have behaved in some way that troubles me so much that I invite them in for a conversation about what has happened.  Sometimes they are at the table in my office because they are sadly disconnected from the social fabric of this small college, leading a faculty or staff member to alert me to the possibility of them dropping out, flunking out, or worse. 

The conversations I have, or try to have, with these students provide me with a deeper understanding of the other side of that equation, and what is missing from it, leading me to a conclusion that in all the discussion and defense of a liberal arts education, something vital to a student’s prospects is not being discussed.  Liberal arts plus... how can I say this?  Liberal arts plus decent interpersonal skills -- the ability to converse, to make eye contact, to speak in complete sentences, to recognize one’s responsibility, to listen to another perspective -- equal fairly decent job prospects. 

A major in European history is neither a solid predictor of, nor an ample plan for, career success.  either is it a death knell.  Without the other side of that equation, however, a liberal arts major is simply not enough. In fact, I've started to see this as basic math, with four simple equations: 

1.  A marketable major (in these times, STEM majors and some professionally focused majors) + good interpersonal skills (which include reliability, ability to work with others, a decent attention span) = very likely professional success. 

2.  A liberal arts major + those same interpersonal skills = fairly likely professional success. 

3.  A marketable major without interpersonal skills = possible professional success (some skills are valuable enough for employers to overlook certain deficits).

4.  A liberal arts major without interpersonal skills = not much chance of professional success.

An equation leading to a good life must balance the economy of the liberal arts with a personal economy -- one that demonstrates emotional intelligence, self-awareness and maturity.  I say this while acknowledging the affection I have for those students who do struggle to interact in appropriate ways, for those who cannot navigate the stressful pathways of classes and peer groups and inconveniences that fill the landscape of college life.  I don't think it's a liberal arts degree that dooms or defines a graduate.  I think it has a lot more to do with their personality traits than their transcript.  And I'm weary of the implication that a choice to major in the liberal arts is what will keep my students unemployed, or underemployed, when I see so many of them landing good jobs and starting what I know will be interesting, though occasionally uneven, careers about which they care deeply.

My advice to the many students who start college as "undecided" is always the same advice I received as an undergraduate: Major in something you enjoy and do it well. Do things well. Show up on time, and do what you say you're going to do. If you run for a student government office, come to meetings and follow through on what you've promised. If you have a campus job, take it seriously. Do things well, I tell students, and doors will open for you. (I should pause here and acknowledge that I didn't actually figure this out until much later, and wish at times I could go back in time and show up for a meeting prepared, or not skip my shift in the student center, but I was young and naive and a sociology major in a different, less-stressful economy with student loans that felt manageable.)

I often find myself working with students who are utterly unable to take responsibility for themselves, who are done in by the smallest disappointment. What does that bode for their future employers? I would not hire them to feed my fish, and I know them. I care about them. I am responsible for them. So what chance do they stand with a prospective employer who is seeking an entry-level worker to interact with customers, or work as part of a team?  Sometimes I find myself hearing from a parent who is calling or emailing to do something for a student -- schedule a meeting with a staff member, fill out a form -- that should be easily within the student’s ability. Will that parent do the same with an employer? 

About a fifth of my 1,500 students are varsity athletes, and another 70 or so are members of club sports teams. They struggle with the same emotional and academic challenges as their non-athlete classmates, but most also manage to figure out a way to get to practices and games, to keep their grades high enough to maintain their eligibility. The club sports leaders have to schedule their own games, arrange their own transportation, decide who plays, design and order their own uniforms, collect dues and lobby the student government for funds. If I could find a way for all of my students to have that sort of experience, I think it could more than make up for their "unmarketable" liberal arts degrees as they enter the work force. And yet, athletics is often criticized as a distraction from academics. 

We routinely place students in positions of responsibility on our campus -- to manage money, to respond to behavioral issues, to serve on search committees and host a candidate for lunch -- and I know what many of them are capable of. I don’t always know their majors, but I know their prospects. They will find themselves in a job, maybe not the job of their dreams at first, but they will be able to manage the small, and then slightly larger, tasks placed before them. And they will think back, I believe, to some of the challenges they faced on the campus of this small college, which they often claim is not “the real world.”  But it is the real world in many ways -- fraught with hassles, battles, disappointments, requiring self-advocacy, empathy, patience -- and it is preparing them for the work world in ways that their academic coursework may or may not be. 

These are student leaders -- the resident assistant who has to learn to confront a belligerent peer at 2 a.m., or encourage a scared new student who has been eating too many meals alone. It's the student body vice president who has to wrangle a roomful of talkative and occasionally self-interested senators and move them toward a decision. It's the student center building manager who has to think on her feet when a pipe bursts and begins to flood the game room, mobilizing her peers to move furniture before it gets ruined. But it’s also the students who don’t characterize themselves as “leaders.” They just figure out how to register for a career services workshop on internships, how to interact with an alum at a networking event, how to competently, if not spectacularly, put one foot in front of the other as they move toward graduation.

I had the opportunity to teach a class this past semester. It was a small seminar with eight students, seven of them seniors. They were all different majors, and I'm not sure I could tell you who was what.  They were, though, smart and verbal and engaged in the discussions we had. They spoke, and they noticed when another person was trying to speak. They brought to the class their other academic interests, one of them using something learned in a religion and sexuality class to interpret one of our texts. Another explained to the class a landmark affirmative action case she learned about in her Constitutional law class.  A third offered her own experience as a resident adviser to provide context to a discussion on race relations on campus. 

They are justifiably worried about their job prospects, especially since they have spent a semester with me reading about the various crises of American higher education and its roots in the global economy. I’m sure their parents are worried, too. 

But I'm not as worried. I'm not sanguine, because it is difficult to find a job these days, but I believe that once they get into a work setting, they will do fine.  And their chances of getting into that work setting are better than average, because they can make eye contact and put several sentences together in service to their ideas. Not all of their classmates can do the same. Those are the ones I worry about.

We need to lessen our obsession with the obvious value of a liberal arts education and instead focus on the values of personal maturity, accountability, a sense of proportion and perspective. We need to be certain our students know how to give a good firm handshake, look someone in the eye and introduce themselves. We need to reinforce the importance of deadlines. We need to address (dare I say it?) personal hygiene and appropriate dress. We must make sure they can get to their feet at a college-sponsored dinner and thank guests for coming, or introduce a speaker at a lecture, or send a thank-you note to the director of an office that has provided them funds to attend a conference. 

Is this the work of higher education?  Some would argue it absolutely is not, that postsecondary education is about mastering content and developing all-important critical thinking skills, about becoming self-taught, curious researchers and life-long learners. To those who would argue those points, I would say yes -- it is all about those things, and I am grateful for the liberal arts education that helped me develop those skills.  But I would then suggest, respectfully, that as maddening as it might be to spend valuable teaching time engaged in building the personal economy of our students, it is perhaps the best way to support the successful launch into that life we want for them. 

Because in the hard work of balancing this complicated equation, even the best liberal arts education will not remedy the lack of the most basic interpersonal skills. 


Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College (Mass.).


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