Many thousands of highly successful people are the proud owners of liberal arts degrees, majoring in subjects ranging from modern history to literature. The roll call includes CEOs of major companies, politicians, academics, journalists, actors, policymakers, TV and movie producers, executives across a wide range of enterprises, and military personnel. You can check out just a few of these people here, here and here.

They perhaps would be surprised to learn that the worth of such degrees increasingly is being called into question. After all, by any measure they did ok, didn’t they?

It is true that arts degrees develop critical thinking skills, along with the capacity for research, judgment, intrinsic curiosity and intellectual (and commercial) expression.

Yet is this enough to equip the modern student with the means to navigate the increasingly complex world in which they find themselves – including the world of work?

Many are coming to the view that it is not.

For example, writing in University Business college president Bryon L Grigsby contends that for universities the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake can no longer be their primary focus.

“That idea died with the onset of the internet,” he says:

Liberal arts institutions can no longer stand pat with traditional models alone. They must start to embrace career exploration, technology and professional programs …

“For far too long, the idea of preparing students for a career has been a taboo topic on liberal arts campuses. But it is not enough to only give students the skills they will need to be creative, ethical leaders. Students also need – and they want – to see how these skills translate to the workforce.”

In The Guardian Maddalaine Ansell writes that “there is more than a whiff of snobbery” in the view that higher education will somehow be debased if it moves to a more instrumental approach:

Only students who don’t need jobs can afford an education that does not prepare them for the workplace, and very few are in this position. ‘Getting a good job’ is consistently given in student surveys as the main motivation for going to university …”

Everything changes and higher education is no exception – it must adapt to the needs and demands of its era and as far as it can see into the future. Surely it is possible to hold on to all that is good in a liberal arts education while creatively and effectively catering to the practical, real-world needs of students.

Has the liberal arts degree passed its use-by date?

– DM