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A Liberal Arts Education – Personal Interests Vs Practicality

“What can you do with that degree?” Is one of the most common (and sometimes irritating) questions that virtually all liberal arts college students get asked during their undergraduate career. Sometimes this is asked by family members concerned for your future job prospects. Other times, however, it is asked by smug friends or acquaintances that are in the sciences or in business related disciplines. To them, their career path may seem a lot more obvious: You study engineering to become an engineer; you study accounting to become an accountant, etc.

But what about students in the liberal arts? There are just too few jobs out there that require specific knowledge in history, political science, philosophy, etc. for every undergraduate student to consider going into fields related to their academic discipline. So the question now is: Do you study liberal arts out of interest, or practicality? I think the answer is both.

At the end of the day, you should really go into a field that you love regardless of how “practical” others perceive it to be. While in college, faculties and departments may be heavily segregated; what you study determines what other students think about your intellectual abilities. In the real world, however, it is a whole other story. Think of the real world like one big melting pot of academic knowledge. What I mean by this is that, unless you have gone into a very technical and specialized field (such as engineering or finance, for example) then everyone is pretty much the same in terms of job prospects. Imagine working hard to get a degree in human resources, getting a job in your related field, and working alongside someone with a degree in music who has never taken a single business course. In this case, it is possible to get a music degree and get a standard entry level job at most companies, or alternatively get a human resource degree and get a standard entry level job at most companies, except suck at music.

You can get hired for a job and work alongside people with degrees in a huge variety of subjects. For example, I have a degree in international relations and work at a science materials company. I work alongside someone with a communications degree, my immediate supervisor has a biology degree, my boss has a sociology degree, and the director of operations has a degree in English literature. In fact, there are perhaps only one or two people in the office with either an education degree or a relevant science degree. So if you are going to end up on the same footing as everyone else, it seems logical to go into something you would enjoy doing, right?

The purpose of a liberal arts education is to acquire a breadth of knowledge and skills that can be applied to whatever you do. While your future employer may not care about Fukuyama’s ideas about the evolution of democracy, or about the institutionalization of political succession in China, they probably care about the skills you developed while studying these sorts of things. By the time you graduate with a liberal arts degree, you will have an entire toolbox of skills that can be used in just about anything you do. Due to the large amount of essays you write, you will probably be a very competent writer and be able to analyze and incorporate multiple standpoints on any issue. Because of all the reading you have to do, you will probably be able to sift quickly and effectively through volumes of information to find what you need and be able to understand it completely. These are highly valuable skills that Science and Business students may not have acquired.

Ultimately, it comes down to doing what you like. Don’t let people scare you into studying something that you have no interest in for the sake of practicality. It takes courage to study whatever you want in the face of criticism about your choice. University is about exploring yourself and finding out who you are. You don’t go to university to study what others want you to study. Remember, the college experience is yours and yours alone so make the most of it. Good Luck!