Liberal Arts fields are different from more practical fields of study, but they serve a crucial function for society. By Grant Stringer

The Hall Monitor: Why a Liberal Arts degree can be risky, but worth it

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There comes a point in every high school kid’s life when they make the decision to either attend or not attend a college or university. Different people have different reasons for making their choice. For some, college is a gross waste of time and money that could be spent getting actual work experience and securing one’s financial independence. For those of us who chose to make the investment in higher education, we did so for many different reasons. Maybe it was passion for a certain academic field, or maybe it was simply the path of security for what happens next.

I chose higher education, and I’m guessing most of you reading this did, too. But regardless of the motivations that got us here, we were presented right off the bat with potentially the biggest decision of our collegiate careers — which academic field would we go in to. I think I’m in a good amount of company when I say that I wasn’t a particularly driven kid who knew exactly what I wanted to do. There was no epiphany, no defining moment where a sense of purpose was bestowed upon me and my future revealed. I knew what I was interested in, however, and decided on enrolling in arts and sciences in pursuit of a Bachelor of Arts.

As soon as that decision is made, the next question inevitably arises (noticing a trend, anyone?), whether it is seriously considered or not. Maybe your parents, maybe a friend, or maybe even that guy on a chairlift that you’re chatting with asks you: so what are you going to do with that? Naturally, they’re talking about careers, which (ideally) return the massive investment of time and money that goes into attending a university. What is a degree worth if it’s not practical?

In engineering, a degree means job opportunities. I saw this firsthand with my brother, who scored a high-paying internship straight out of graduation last spring. With business or finance, one graduates with the knowledge of how to execute careers in either field. But with arts and sciences disciplines like political science, philosophy, classics, women’s studies or sociology, the degrees don’t necessarily prepare one for a career. This is frustrating, especially for students passionately pursuing these degrees with costs and/or debt piling higher and higher each semester.

This frustration, even fear, is perfectly summed up in a 2012 statement made by the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.

“I’m sure it’s fun, but the average college graduate with a degree in something like english is going to end up working in a shoe store.”

This is a popular opinion that is hardly new, reminiscent of the Cold War-esque rhetoric that strikes fear in today’s America, saying countries like China and India are outperforming the U.S. in areas like mathematics, economics and technological innovation.

Those disciplines are surely crucial to maintaining a growing economy that, we are told, distributes wealth across American society. But liberal arts disciplines do something entirely different that is equally as crucial to American society — they teach us to be free.

Consider the word liberal. In the United States and most industrialized democracies, “liberal” evokes imagery of left-leaning social and political policies like welfare programs, health care, sexual freedom, equality and even the type of people who would support those policies. Before “liberal” had all these connotations, though, liberalism meant the ability to do what you want to do, regardless of any authority that might attempt to restrain your individual activity —  in other words, liberalism means freedom.

With this in mind, liberal education equips students to think freely by providing the actual information and conceptual tools to form opinions about extremely complex subjects, anywhere from the origin of humanity to visions of where we are headed. Even more beneficial to the liberal arts student is the constant intersection of curricula between different disciplines. It so happens that a question posed by international affairs can be answered in ethnic studies, or philosophy can answer problems that plague our political system.

With a Bachelor of Arts, American society is invigorated by people who, above all, know what is going on, even if an undergraduate degree doesn’t make you an expert in your field. And, if you decide to go on to pursue a graduate’s degree or work directly in your field, society benefits from individuals who can tell us exactly how we think about race, how history can predict what the next presidency will look like and how we can protect the earth’s natural resources. These are big questions that liberal education prepares us to answer ourselves.

But enough from me. If you’re reluctant to either enroll or finish out a degree in the liberal arts, but are passionate about what you study, consider this quote from Malcolm X:

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Grant Stringer at grant.stringer@colorado.edu.

About Ellis Arnold

Ellis Arnold is the CUI's editor-in-chief and a journalism and political science student. He writes about diversity issues, politics, student government, music and (sometimes) life advice. Is he qualified to do that? You'll never know. He's a senior from Aurora, Colorado, who's been with the CUI for eight semesters.

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