DONOHUE: Can there be equality for … Liberal Arts students?

Caity Donohue

Last week, I made the mistake of getting my coffee at the Holy Grounds in Bartley, where I happened to overhear an unsettling conversation. I was debating between my regular coffee with a dash of half-and-half or stepping it up to a latte when the gentleman in front of me loudly announced, “A liberal arts degree is the worst thing you can do to yourself.” I balked.

“I mean it,” he enthused to the person next to him. Here, I must make an assumption: the man looked older than a student, so I deduced that it was very likely that he was a professor. He continued, “People in the liberal arts always try to retaliate with something like, ‘But it provides you with the background to write well and speak eloquently,’ or some such thing.”

The professor had a point there. I may have made the same argument. “It doesn’t help their case. I’ll give you an example: I want you to write an office memo at the corporation where we work. I don’t really care how you do it, just that you get it done.”

I held back my temper because I was extremely tempted to share with this gentleman how seriously misguided he was. Perhaps he didn’t think his statement through fully. Regardless, let’s think about that again: he doesn’t mind grammatical errors, poor sentence structure and a rambling writing style as long as it “gets done.” The English major in me shudders.

I find few things more annoying than a letter written by my employer that has mistakes – it’s hard to command respect through a message so unstructured and full of mistakes that I can correct in a glance. I guarantee that if it bothers me, a CEO doesn’t want to waste his or her time reading a proxy that is unclear or lacking economic word choice.

This isn’t to say that the arts and sciences are all about writing, either. History, economics, psychology, sociology, humanities and philosophy are what build a student’s skills in critical reasoning and logic, as well as an understanding of behavior, motivation and conflict.

The first thing one learns in philosophy is the idea of “if p, then q,” the way to express your opinions coherently.

In fact, it is likely that a board of directors hiring a CEO could not care less whether someone who studied accounting can file a corporate tax return and might instead focus on an applicant that knows how to articulate a compelling strategy and motivate a talented team of individuals.

This isn’t to say that one degree is better than the other. The best person to write the aforementioned “memo” is a student who has been exposed to both liberal arts and business because well-rounded students can do anything with their education.

That being said, the cause for argument is what most are tired of hearing, “Liberal arts? What are you going to do with that?”

I recall a professor I had last year explaining to us na’ve freshmen that, today, liberal arts students are like “second-class” citizens.

The world has found comfort in applying titles to everyone; for example, “You will be an engineer. You can be a nurse. You may be a doctor.” Afraid of the unknown and less common, we hesitate to be the person to state, “I will be a speech writer for a congressman with my political science degree.”

It’s true that we are a society that is placing more emphasis on job titles, especially in this economy.

There may be some perceived security in knowing exactly what it is you will do with your life. But, if you’re talking about job security, no such thing exists.

The best you can do is to be educated in as many topics as possible; in human behavior, in logic, in efficiency and in thought. All of which can be found in the liberal arts.


Caity Donohue is a sophomore English and secondary education major from Northbrook, Ill. She can be reached at [email protected].