It has become fashionable for politicians to promote “practical” education by devaluing the liberal arts. President Barack Obama took a slap at art history majors two years ago. Gov. Matt Bevin recently went after French literature majors.
After I wrote a column critical of Bevin’s comments, I heard from many readers with undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts. Some of the most interesting comments came from senior business executives and leaders of large organizations.
Several wrote passionately about how studying arts and humanities had prepared them for success, because it taught them how to think more creatively and to understand people and the ways the world works.
A company president told me that while many of her employees’ jobs are technical, she looks for people with a strong liberal arts background because they tend to be better problem-solvers and communicators.
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The leader of a large institution observed that a person who knows how to do things will always have a job — but the person who knows “why” will be their supervisor.
Several readers wrote about the difference between a trained person and an educated one, and the difference between being prepared for short-term employment and long-term career success.
A utility executive in Western Kentucky emphasized that the purpose of education is not just to prepare people to be workers, but to be critically thinking citizens. That’s especially important this year, he said, when so many presidential candidates offer only simplistic solutions for the nation’s complex problems.
Several readers made a point I think is especially important: higher education is not an either-or proposition. It should include science, math, engineering and technology. But the arts, humanities and literature are just as important. That’s because success requires innovation and working with people, not just machines.
One person I heard from was Transylvania University President Seamus Carey. He has become an advocate nationally for the value of a liberal arts education, which is not surprising since that is Transylvania’s primary role.
That’s a niche liberal arts schools can continue to fill — leaders with character.
Seamus Carey, Transylvania University president
When we talked further last week, Carey said he understands and appreciates the tensions that have given rise to politicians’ comments — soaring college costs, rising student debt and high unemployment rates among some recent graduates.
Carey is a philosopher by training, but he understands practicality. The son of Irish immigrants spent many weekends of his youth in the Bronx helping his father, a carpenter, with construction jobs. When he was a first-generation college student, his parents wondered how studying philosophy would ever earn him a living.
Carey also has three children, including a daughter at an expensive college and another daughter headed for college soon. He sympathizes when parents are anxious about whether their educational investment will pay off.
“That doesn’t compromise my idealism,” Carey said. “But you need both.”
Since Carey came to Transylvania 18 months ago, the university has focused more on helping students translate academic passion into vocation. Carey created a program called 100 Doors to Success. He hoped to find 100 successful alumni who would mentor a student throughout his or her four years at Transylvania. So far, he said, more than 200 mentors have volunteered and been matched with students.
Transylvania’s staff has for years helped arrange business and professional internships for students. Carey said he hopes to build on that program and double to 200 the number of students with internships next year.
But, as Carey said in a presentation last year, students are not human capital and education is not a commodity. Measuring the impact of higher education is more complicated than assessing initial employment rates and average salaries five years after graduation.
“A better question is, ‘Are you working toward a life that is fulfilling and meaningful?’” Carey said.
There will always be a need for technicians, engineers, scientists and business executives. But Carey thinks there also is a need for people in business, government and society who can see and think beyond narrow self-interest to the greater good.
“Our country is starving for leaders that have both strength and humility,” he said. “Our school has been and continues to be a place that trains great leaders. That’s a niche liberal arts schools can continue to fill — leaders with character.”