The Liberal Arts: A 21st Century Degree

In an environment where many students specialize in “practical” majors, liberal arts schools need to answer two questions: Why study the liberal arts in the 21st century? and How will it prepare a student for a job?

The underlying assumptions are, of course, that a liberal arts education is outdated, and, consequently, cannot provide students with the skills they need to succeed in the modern economy. In fact, the typical argument goes further, claiming that science and business demand highly-specialized training from an early age.

 

The Argument for the Liberal Arts Based on the Data

If the goal is career success, the data—including the fact that one-third of Fortune 500 executives are graduates of liberal arts programs—supports getting a liberal arts education.

The Wall Street Journal featured a number of articles making this point. “Why Focusing Too Narrowly in College Could Backfire,” published in November 2013 argued that the trend toward specialization in college puts graduates at a disadvantage in an economy where people not only change employers but professions several times in the course of their careers. Liberal arts graduates trained in critical thinking, a broad base of knowledge, and the ability to work well with others find themselves at a significant advantage. Their education gives them the agility they need early in their careers and later on once many have specialized by pursuing graduate studies.

The results can be seen in the return on investment, that is, in life-long earning. A recent study of three million Americans found that regarding salary, liberal arts programs are a considerably better investment than specialized programs. The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ January 2014 report, “How Liberal Arts Majors Fare in Employment,” shows that at peak earning ages (ages 55 to 60) liberal arts majors earn more than their peers who graduated with specialized degrees.

So the data is clear. A liberal arts education sets people up for worldly success more reliably than a specialized “practical” education. That, however, is not what proponents of liberal arts emphasize for the simple reason that financial success is not the most important goal in life or in education.

 

The Argument for the Liberal Arts, based on the Formation of People

A liberal education forms the whole person and therein lies the real value of studying the liberal arts. Liberal learning emphasizes the innate human desire for liberty as ordered by the natural law and God and prepares students to be free citizens of a free society.

As Russell Kirk, the 20th-century scholar of education, American politics, and religion wrote:

The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake. It ought not to be forgotten, in this mass-age when the state aspires to be all in all, that genuine education is something higher than an instrument of public policy…. Formal schooling actually commenced as an endeavor to acquaint the rising generation with religious knowledge: with awareness of the transcendent and with moral truths. Its purpose was not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.

The impact of liberal education forming the whole person is understood well by employers, who in increasing numbers are looking explicitly for liberal arts graduates. Even if they do not understand the foundation, they appreciate the result: joyful, engaging employees who can think deeply and solve problems, commit themselves to the corporate mission, and excel at working with others and adapting to change. These abilities are in large measure due to an education that understands reality as a coherent whole rather than a set of independent and isolated silos of specialization.

On too many college campuses specialized education degrades the human person to a mere cog in the mechanistic wheel of the economy. What Blessed John Henry Newman observed in the 19th century is still true today: students “leave their place of education simply dissipated and relaxed by the multiplicity of subjects, which they have never really mastered, and so shallow as not even to know their shallowness.”

It is no coincidence, therefore, that liberal arts graduates, regardless of the stage of their career, are the happiest, most prepared, most fulfilled employees. Their education makes them both appealing colleagues and capable workers.

 

Wyoming Catholic College’s Leadership Formation

If our programs at Wyoming Catholic College merely immersed our students in the Great Books and Great Ideas of Western Civilization, then our graduates would still be excellent colleagues, citizens, and Christians. We take our formation one step further, however, by combining that intellectual formation with an emphasis on experiential learning within God’s First Book, the book of nature.

Students begin their studies at Wyoming Catholic College with a three-week backpacking trip in the rugged Rocky Mountains. On that expedition our freshmen begin to learn the teamwork, leadership, fortitude, and magnanimity that distinguish them from their peers. And it doesn’t end with the freshman trip, but continues as every student spends at least an additional seven weeks in the wilderness, continuing to grow as people, as followers, and as leaders.

Our students’ college experience, then, is a combination of intellectual formation within a coherent whole; physical, emotional, and relational challenges in the wilderness; and the Christian spirituality and morality they learn in both venues.

 

How You Can Help

Whether you are a prospective student, a prospective parent, or an employer, understand that liberal arts graduates are not at a disadvantage as they begin their careers, but, as the evidence clearly indicates, liberal arts graduates have distinct advantages in the highly competitive and ever-changing modern economy. Moreover, in a society that has a dire need for joyful witnesses in every arena of life, programs like the one at Wyoming Catholic College that focus on forming the whole person are particularly timely.

We encourage you, therefore, to look more closely at the details of our education and formation. If you have questions, please contact the college.

Beyond that, we would be grateful for your assistance in posting internship and employment opportunities for our students and alumni. Our purpose is not merely to connect a student with a job, but to link students and employers in a way that continues the formation of both. After all, if we are, in fact, serious about providing hope for a listless society, then starting with the apostolate of friendship is a most important step.

When we say that at Wyoming Catholic we will help the culture, the country, and the Church, we are not being abstract or trite. What we mean is that our students and graduates, whether working as interns and employees, bring a sense of mission to their work. They see their professional steps as part of a vocation. And whether the task is big or small, they bring a joyful zeal that, when combined with the tradition of the liberal arts, produce outstanding employees who are inspired by the words of Blessed John Henry Newman who wrote in The Idea of a University: “We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away; we perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own.”