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Speakers: Yes, English Majors Can Find Jobs

Liberal arts degree has value but is given short shrift by employers

Jun. 12th, 2012
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RALEIGH — A joke going around the Internet features a picture of the Dos Equis beer spokesman, the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” with a caption: “I don’t always talk to English majors, but when I do, I ask for a venti cappuccino.” The joke is that English majors have a hard time finding a job after college.

Speakers at a recent conference at Wake Forest University agreed that it is hard for English majors (and other liberal arts majors) to find jobs after graduation. However, they maintained that, although colleges could do more to help them find jobs, liberal arts remains a worthwhile field of study.

The “Rethinking Success” conference, held from April 11-13, had a dual purpose — reaffirming the value of a liberal arts education and developing practical ways to get graduates with liberal arts degrees into successful careers. By liberal arts, the speakers meant the humanities, such as history and philosophy, as well as the natural sciences — rather than disciplines centered on skills necessary for a specific occupation such as marketing or accounting.

Many speakers — college presidents, professors, authors, businessmen, and nonprofit leaders — argued that a broad education is underappreciated in society. They contended that if the public only understood the value of the liberal arts, it would have a more favorable opinion, more students would enroll, and society would be better off.

One approach was to tell more people about the benefits of liberal arts education. For instance, Mark Roche, University of Notre Dame professor and author of Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, suggested a national public relations campaign promoting three values of a liberal education that he outlined in his book. He said a liberal arts degree has value in itself, informing students’ personal philosophies; it has practical value, through the skills it promotes; and it has formative value in the intellectual virtues it cultivates.

Christopher Howard, president of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, largely agreed, insisting that a broad liberal arts education remains valuable in the long run despite the large number of underemployed bachelor’s degree holders. Referring to the top executives at GE and Hewlett-Packard, respectively, Howard said, “When college graduates “become the Jeff Immelts of the world, the Meg Whitmans of the world … we don’t want them building spreadsheets. We want their judgment, we want their sense of history, we want them to have a breadth that allows them to lead.”

Unfortunately, said Howard, the sluggish economy has let businesses find applicants with credentials more closely aligned with specific jobs, relieving them of the expense of training employees who lack the skills the jobs requires. In fact, although businesses still often say they are looking for “well-rounded” employees, Howard (speaking from his experience working with several corporations) said that when they do so, they are “damned liars.”

So, if the study of the liberal arts is to persist, selling it to students and potential employers will be a tough job. To make the medicine easier to swallow, a few speakers had proposals for helping graduates get ahead in their careers.

Stanton Green, a dean at Monmouth University in New Jersey, had a number of suggestions for helping liberal arts majors find jobs. One was to make such students more aware of the possibilities in front of them.

“Where do people find jobs?” asked Green. “Where they look for them,” he said, answering his own question. He said liberal arts students have skills that could be applied to many different occupations if they would consider a variety of possibilities outside their fields of study.

Organizers of the Wake Forest conference devoted one panel to a discussion of the characteristics of today’s college students. Neil Howe, author of several books on what makes different generations different, spoke of the “millennials,” described as those born in the same general period as today’s college students. Millennials, Howe said, are remarkable as a generation in that they feel entitled, pressured, and optimistic. They expect themselves and those around them to succeed — something that can make failure even more painful than usual.

Howe also noted that the parents of millennials, “generation X-ers,” are more bottom-line focused and trust colleges less than their parents did, including when colleges promote the liberal arts. Referring to today’s parents’ skepticism, Howe warned that there is “a cold wind beginning to blow through your colleges.”

Cold wind or no, conference goers remained optimistic.

Duke Cheston is a writer/reporter for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.