Why it’s Wrong to Devalue a Liberal Arts Degree


March 15, 2019
by Kevin O’Toole (’11), Head of International Growth, Google Launchpad

 

Gonzaga alumni Kevin O'Toole stands at a table in front of an audience.
I take semi-regular calls with Gonzaga seniors who are applying for jobs in the Silicon Valley and liberal arts majors trying to navigate the business world. On those calls, many of the liberal arts majors I speak with share that they believe or have been told by others that majoring in a liberal art is not valuable, practical, or employable in “the real world.” With respect to those students and their confidants—and despite the fact that I was a liberal arts major and consider the topic with some pretty implicit bias—they’re wrong. That said, the false incongruence between academic major and job viability is something I think that Gonzaga and its Catholic, Jesuit, liberal arts tradition is uniquely well-suited to help address. Simply put, I’m writing this to tell you emphatically that majoring in a liberal art is one of the most practical things a student can do.

Stepping back (dramatically): Since the beginning of time, the purest goal of academia has been not to create high-paying jobs, but to advance knowledge. The goal of a liberal arts education—a banal platitude but true—is to teach students how to think, and help them choose what to think about. The goal of a Catholic, Jesuit, liberal arts education is to go further, and show students how Transcendental Truth (plainly, God) is central to what they think and choose to think about in the world. This is distinct from the value proposition offered by a school like Caltech, where the emphasis is less on holistic education and more on specialized training. As one such Catholic, Jesuit, liberal arts university, the goal at Gonzaga ought to be helping students construct meaning in life through reason and critical discernment. Students who can do this well will be categorically better equipped to consider and thrive in major life decisions, like jobs.

Stepping sideways (anecdotally): A fun thing to consider about our very near future is that as technology progresses, a major provision and value of the university—the supply of knowledge—will be fundamentally undermined. Already, the ubiquity of access to the world’s information and the democratization of every data point imaginable makes the challenge not memorizing or accessing material—dates, facts, figures—but rather comprehending vast quantities of it.

Stepping back in (specifically): The competencies that a liberal arts education emphasizes—writing, synthesis, research, problem solving, argumentation, critical thinking—are the exact competencies all employers want. It is also what they need. Liberal arts majors are forced to deal with a lot of gray areas in their studies, and they do not have the luxury of dealing with black and white truths (as accounting and engineering do, for example). Moreover, the pursuit of knowledge within the liberal arts also requires a certain degree of humility, as the honest pursuit of these studies tends to make it quite obvious to students that the more one learns, the less one knows. People who can navigate ambiguity with strong critical thinking skills and humility tend to do pretty well in the business world. A recent Harvard economic study found that jobs requiring both soft skills and thinking skills have had the largest growth in employment and pay in the last three decades. However, puzzlingly, a common knock on liberal arts (which buttresses both skill types) is that it is hard to find a first job and that some majors are unemployable.

“The Unemployable Argument” is one that I have become familiar with on those calls with Gonzaga seniors. I have been told variations of “My parents won’t help me with tuition if I major in [fill-in-the-blank-liberal-art], which is why I’m majoring in [fill-in-the-blank-business-or-engineering],” or “I love [fill-in-the-blank-liberal-art], but have taken out too many loans to major in something that’s not practical” countless times. These have to be some of the least compelling things a possible employer can hear from an applicant, and they reek of a lack of agency. Moreover, sentiments like these are not grounded in data or logic; they are emblematic of plain wrong-thinking (which, ironically, liberal arts combats).

At Gonzaga, “The Unemployable Argument” provides a narrative opportunity to begin a campaign against “The Unemployable Fallacy”; the Gonzaga community can—and must—do a better job of addressing this for parents and students who believe that liberal arts majors are unemployable. That notion ignores:

  1. Modern economic realities: Jobs require a mix of skills not easily packaged in any one major.
  2. Pending technological realities: Many technical skills that degrees confer can be learned open source; some majors will become obsolete over time (e.g., computers can be programmed to replace accountants; artificial intelligence will program computers), while other majors—irrespective of university—already lag behind changes in the workplace (e.g., human resources).

Employment data shows that less than one-third of college graduates work in jobs directly related to their majors; this should be justification enough for both a strong core curriculum and a liberal arts education. Good employers know that the most important investment any business can make is an investment in good people. Accordingly, they hire new employees not just for one job but for any number of future roles (hence the benefits of being well rounded). Moreover, those same employers will teach their employees what they need to do to be successful functionally, but they will not have the time or inclination to teach what only a liberal arts education can provide but what all employers acutely need (e.g., with history and psychology and biology, research and evidence-based argumentation; with philosophy and religion and literature, insights into the human condition). College students should study widely while they can afford the luxury; the workplace will force them to narrow and specialize. The value of a liberal arts education is that it allows students to become acquainted with bodies of knowledge without concern for the bottom line.

In my world of technology and venture capital investing, where reading people matters much more than reading algorithms or income statements, we know that picking the right entrepreneur has an outsized impact on a business’ future success, much more so than the specific technology, product, market, or business model. The characteristic we care about most when it comes to picking those entrepreneurs is adaptability (as a subset of creativity). So far as I can tell, a liberal arts education—specifically a Catholic, Jesuit, liberal arts education—stands the best chance of enabling adaptability for the next wave of new grads who enter the workforce.

Again, the goal of academia is not to create high-paying jobs, it is to advance knowledge and empower students with the critical thinking skills they will need to navigate the ups, downs, and side-steps of life. With so much uncertainty in the world, we need good thinkers—classically trained, critical thinkers—now more than ever. How to think, write, form an opinion, back it up, present it compellingly, and how to yield and learn and examine the world with bright eyes and optimism, despite all the facts, are baseline side effects of study in the liberal arts and what Gonzaga’s academic tradition offers in abundance.

For its long-term viability as an authentically Catholic, Jesuit, liberal arts university, the Gonzaga community must deepen its commitment to empowering liberal arts majors and supporting more students in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. And don’t worry: there are plenty of tangential positive effects that approach will have for entering—and long-term success within—a modern and evolving global workforce.

The opinions expressed here are Kevin O’Toole’s alone and do not reflect those of his employer.