What good is a liberal arts degree?

Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 10, 2016

CINCINNATI – What good is a liberal arts degree?

Not much, to hear many politicians describe it.

"We need more welders and less philosophers," Sen. Marco Rubio declared at a Republican presidential debate last November. (An English major could have told him to say "fewer" philosophers.)

More recently, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin announced a plan to slash state spending on higher education by 9 percent over two years, promising to shift money toward engineering and other degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM disciplines).

"All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so. They are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer," he told reporters in January.

They and many politicians are trying to figure out how to fix a chronic shortage of highly qualified workers in engineering and manufacturing.

But some prominent business and science leaders, along with Greater Cincinnati university leaders, say French literature majors, philosophers and liberal arts degree holders of all kinds are part of the answer.

"I sometimes respond to the question 'What can a student do with an English or history degree' with the answer: Anything they want,'" said Kenneth Petren, dean of University of Cincinnati's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.


Ken Petren, dean of UC's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences


"Students today are drawn to majors that have a clear connection to their first job, but the liberal arts major will serve them better over the long term," he said.

Interviews with leaders from UC, Xavier University and Thomas More College and some high-flying graduates pointed toward distinct advantages that liberal arts degrees offer graduates for 21st Century careers.


Judith Marlowe's path to starting universal hearing tests for newborns in countries across the world began when she studied English and French at Thomas More College.


Judith Marlowe, a pioneer in universal infant hearing screening


She excelled and started working on a doctorate in English literature through a four-year fellowship at Catholic University in Washington when she spotted children and their parents going in and out of a Washington building that turned out to be a speech and hearing center.

Marlowe resigned from her fellowship and switched to studying communication disorders, a path that led her to develop the first program to screen all newborn babies for hearing problems in the 1980s.

"I learned that if we can find hearing loss and intervene before children reach six months, they can have language and communication skills equal to hearing children by age 3," Marlowe said. "This created a moral imperative for me."

She's been acting on the imperative ever since, doing clinical research for decades in her private practice. She now spreads the benefits of universal screening and tools to implement it across the globe as executive director of audiology and professional relations at Natus Medical Corp.

Marlowe said it's a vocation that she would not have found as a college student without a liberal arts degree that sparked her curiosity about the wider world.

"Liberal arts is not about the content being taught," she said. "The purpose is to equip a person to live life in a world that's ever-changing. The options that are available for careers and jobs at any given point are not going to be the same five or 10 years down the road."

Thomas More President Michael Armstrong said Marlowe's example is one that supports his contention that he's personally presented to Gov. Bevin that liberal arts degrees will help fill gaps in Kentucky's labor force.

"A liberal arts degree will provide a better workforce because of the critical thinking skills, communication skills and values that they teach," Armstrong said.


Xavier University President Michael Graham recently chatted with graduates who work at Microsoft's headquarters in Seattle and found them excelling.


Father Michael Graham, Xavier University president.


"They have no problem hiring engineers. The huge problem is getting people who can manage their engineers," he said. That's where liberal arts and its emphasis on developing excellent writing and speaking skills come in.

"I consider (communication skills) to be one of my strong points," said Michael Fortin, one of those XU graduates that the Rev. Graham referenced.

He's now a vice president in Microsoft's Windows and devices group, helping the tech giant navigate its way through a rapidly changing business.

"The pure engineering side is dominated by individuals who are looking very task-oriented, looking for a linear solution to a specific problem," Fortin said. "There's a need to step back and look for the larger picture."

Fortin graduated from XU with a computer science degree, but he credits the school's rigorous core curriculum, which included liberal arts requirements like a foreign language, English literature and history, for giving him the tools to manage engineers who sometimes lack a well-rounded skill set.

"I personally have hired probably hundreds of engineers," he said. "In each case, you're looking for whether they are going to fit well on the team, if they have the technical chops for the current job but also the motivation and capacity to grow while being a good team member. We're not only hiring for today's problems."

Graham, who majored in psychology and philosophy, said a technical degree may not provide the skills to grow throughout a long career.

"They can do the engineering stuff very well. But you're only going to go so far if that's all you can do. With problem solving, communication ability and teamwork, you're going to be able to do things in engineering that people more narrowly trained simply can't do," he said.


When UC Provost Beverly Davenport is interviewing an astrophysicist for a faculty position, she prods for more than his or her expertise.

"I don't talk to an astrophysicist about astrophysics at dinner," she said. "You must be able to talk to people about a book they just read or a reference to literature. I've always believed the smartest people to me are always the broadest people."


UC Provost and Chief Academic Officer Beverly Davenport. Photo by Emily Maxwell.


Davenport said majoring in communications at Western Kentucky University helped frame her career.

"I think it has been fundamental to every aspect of my job. It teaches me how to think in a logical way. It teaches me to be mindful of audience. Evidence matters. I learned that as a debater and as a communications major. I learned data-driven decision making," she said.

Armstrong said that when he graduated from college in 1992 he was told to expect to change jobs four times.

"Now experts say today's graduates will change eight to 10 times. The skill set that they need for that world is comes from a liberal arts degree," he said.

Public Good

Graham sees the devaluation of liberal arts degrees as part of a shift over the last 20 years where society stopped thinking of earning college degrees as a public good and focused only on how they could benefit the individual.

"(College graduates) help society move forward. To the degree that people have been critically trained, answering and asking tough questions, they're going to be able to add value to the world around them," he said. "It's not surprising that once you start saying that degrees aren't a public good any more that people question the value of a liberal arts degree. It's the society itself that’s poorer for it."

Follow Bob Driehaus on FacebookGoogle, and Twitter.