Why Businesses Need Liberal Arts Graduates

A few years ago I was invited to speak on panel at my alma mater on the topic of “can Liberal Arts graduates have a career outside of academia?”

I was an English major and I work/have worked at some of the most coveted tech companies in the world. My professors of yesteryear, therefore, invited me and some fellow alumni to regale current undergrads with tales of our studies and how it led to our carers today.

I was happy to participate in this panel, I often find myself recanting the values and lessons I gained as an English major and how I apply them at work: confidence in writing, comfort in verbally defending my assessment of a situation (text), and the capacity to ingest diverse perspectives.

It is for the reasons above the I took pause when I read the following statistics in Louis Menand’s recent review “What’s So Great About Great-Books Courses?”:

Between 2012 and 2019, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in English fell by twenty-six per cent, in philosophy and religious studies by twenty-five per cent, and in foreign languages and literature by twenty-four per cent.

While Menand’s article briefly touches upon the impact that the current college curriculum has on careers, it doesn’t fully assess the impact that a lack of liberal arts education could have on the workplace and organizations as a whole.

As an English major you survey works from around the world that are written at different times throughout history by authors who have had wide rang of life experiences. Long gone are the days when an English major only reads works by dead white authors. I graduated college before the stats above were collected, and even then I had the chance to contemplate the dialogue between William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. I read books by 20th century authors from Israel and the Caribbean, and 19th century books written by former slaves and wandering transcendentalist. As a student of literature you contemplate the plight of a pilgrim on the road to Canterbury and a the angst of a Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey.

Photo by Gabriel Sollmann on Unsplash

So while on the surface an English major learns how to write essays and gain an appreciation for tweed, they are also developing the ability to ingest and understand other people’s perspectives.

We, rightly, spend a lot of time talking about the need to hire and develop diverse teams in the workplace. However, we spend almost no time evaluating whether we have the skills to incorporate those diverse perspectives into the way we think. A diverse team without liberal arts majors is like a tennis match without a ball, each individual can maintain their position but there is no mechanism for communicating.

This, therefore, acts as a call to hiring managers, students and parents. There is a shrinking population of people who have been trained with the ability to hear out other people’s perspectives and reflect on them in an inclusive and critical way. Hire those people, be those people, encourage those people to continue to pursue their Liberal Arts degrees.

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