Looking at Liberal Arts from the Outside

tulipsThey call us dreamers and radicals. We took a chance at what we loved and came out the other side battle-worn. We are Liberal Arts graduates.

A friend recently posted an article on Facebook about a conference for the future of Liberal Arts that took place at St. Johns College. It doesn’t look good. Here’s a snippet –

English majors only account for 3% of all majors nationwide.

One interesting comment listed in the article, which admittedly is controversial, is made by Andrew DelBanco, head of American Studies at Columbia University – “You cannot explain the value of a liberal education to those who have not had one.”

While the article focuses on some recent trends in the humanities that arguably should be reversed, let’s focus on that one comment. I don’t think it is the value is difficult to explain, you just have to switch your perspective.

I absolutely loved studying literature, but having an English degree meant two paths:

1. English professor – I saw the decline coming (see the article linked above)
2. Lawyer – I took my LSATs, but it just wasn’t for me.

By the time I realized I may have made a mistake by declaring English as my major, I decided that I was too far down the path. I took advantage of the free websites at Penn State, learned some HTML code, and finished up my English degree. I spent my immediate post-graduate life focusing on computers and moved into an entry-level IT job.

16 years later, I am still in IT and the value of my degree is extremely easy to see. This made me realize that Delbanco, which highly educated and well-respected, is missing the perspective of someone working completely outside the Liberal Arts field.

I thought my English degree was a hindrance for a long time. In IT, obviously technical skills are highly valued. I had these skills, but I started noticing that others, while very technically saavy, lacked other skills that I seemed to have.

I could communicate effectively and had empathy. This helped me translate technical ideas and concepts to non-technical customers and business partners. Empathy is a skill that is valued by business leaders for this and other reasons. For example, my first Enterprise IT job was a laptop support technician. After seeing the same problems being logged by the Help Desk over and over, I designed a training class to address common issues and delivered it to IT contacts in the business and administrative assistants.

As time went on and my responsibilities grew, I found other skills came naturally – complex analysis, listening, and critical thinking. It turns out, these skills that are also highly valued. Several years ago, I worked with IT teams and HR to understand the requirements and pain points around account management. From there, I developed an account lifecycle management strategy using a software solution and pitched the idea to various business units and management. The project was approved and we implemented a solution that lowered Help Desk tickets, streamlined account creation and kept terminations within SLA.

Delbanco almost has it right. Trying to convince someone of the value of a Liberal Arts education from inside a career in that field is impossible. Preaching the value as a professor and pointing to Liberals Arts careers as valuable is certainly difficult. How do you quantify the value of an author’s work, for example? It is completely subjective.

Instead, put a spin on the discussion and point to successful people that leverage their Liberal Arts education to drive results and change in other fields. The value become both measureable and obvious.

Photo: Library_Tulips_2 by Alina Gluck