The Societal Effect of an Undervalued Liberal Arts Education

“You’re a political science and sociology major? Good luck getting a job!”

There is a persisting sentiment of condescension towards the liberal arts on college campuses across the nation. With a globalized economy that is deeply cemented in the advent and advancement of digital technology, the perception of a liberal arts education that of an antiquated, obscure subsection of academia which houses the crazies who are more concerned with theoretical impracticalities than tangible ‘real world’ issues. Areas of study based in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) subjects are considered to be far more valuable and appealing to potential employers and the public than those based in the social sciences. And this trend is not completely without merit—to thrive in this economy we must have people who are dedicated to math and the physical sciences that will further the pursuit of efficiency and a better connected world. Further, people educated in business, STEM, and medicine can create solutions to tangible, specific complex problems that our world is facing better than someone educated in the social sciences. Notwithstanding, the lack of legitimacy that is awarded to the social science disciplines has the potential to be disastrous to the future of our society. To put it more acutely—there is greater utility in a liberal arts education than anyone wants to admit.

What separates a liberal arts education from the subjects mentions in the former is that their focus lies chiefly within the specialized skills associated with the subject (coding, accounting, physical therapy, mechanical engineering, etc..) while the focus of a liberal arts education lies almost exclusively within the approach to the acquisition of knowledge and worldly understanding. This is not to say that the liberal arts don’t teach specific skills; I have learned about the inner working of campaign finance, the process of public opinion polling, the causation of social stratification, and the empirical effect of public policies put into action. However, what I have derived as being most valuable about my education is that I have a true understanding of how to approach knowledge and ideas to find what is important and translate that to a practical use. Why do I find this so crucial? Because without it, we are too easily susceptible to influences that are adverse to the interests of ourselves and the interests to our society as a whole. We lack the ability to decipher the merits and pitfalls of ideas and are vulnerable to malicious intellectual, societal, and political takeover. No example seems more poignant than our current domestic and international political climate.

It is no secret that many political establishments around the globe are experiencing extraordinary, normative beliefs-changing turbulence. The frightening increase in the frequency of terror attacks around the globe from a more complex and decentralized terrorism system, the international migrant and domestic immigration question, the dereliction of nations from super-national governing bodies, and the splintering partisanship along with the redefinition of ideological lines have all been contributing factors to the rise in anger and dissatisfaction of the average citizen in America and abroad. And instead of working to unite the public and approach our problems with a pragmatic solution, we have leaders that are stoking our fears through the blatant and conscious distribution of misinformation that only compounds our problems, not alleviates them. How is this beneficial to the betterment of our society? What goal is this accomplishing? If a certain faction blocks a congressional bill that would objectively good for our nation for the sole reason of political affiliation, what is intended outcome or purpose? Congrats, you won! Your reward? A polarized political climate, populist anger, horrible job approval rates, widespread distrust due to widespread lies, and more work for you. Why would someone not only prefer, but also actively work to create a system like this? It seems so incredibly counterintuitive and unappealing that I have a hard time coming to grasps with this reality.

However, a large piece of a liberal arts education is taking an objective look at an issue, identifying the root of the problem, understanding the historical factors that helped create the problem, and figuring out a way to efficiently solve it while providing clear lessons and chronology for those who might an encounter similar problems in the future. Due to the foregoing, I am not ignorant to reasons we are here. I attribute my, and many others, existential recognition of this problem to a liberal arts education. During my tenure, I was taught not to blindly believe what is preached without diligently dissecting the merits of the point. I was taught how to understand psychological and conscious biases and guard myself against their influences. I was taught to view politics and society not as a closed room that fully encompasses every possible idea that can be thought of, but rather as an open field that encourages merited discourse as a tool of social advancement.

I have been lucky enough to have been taught this in my undergraduate education; unfortunately, the majority of the general public has not had the same opportunity  to share in my prerogative. To no fault of his or her own, many people have either not had the privilege to obtain a formal education, or chosen to focus on a different subject where this thought process is not an integral part of the curriculum. As a result, there is a serious void of constructive public discourse, deep scrutiny of groupthink mentality, factual accountability for our public figures, and the perceived value of compromise. What is most disheartening about all of this is that, as a public, we are generally cognizant that these issues exist. Congressional approval ratings are under or around 10%, a majority of the population think this country is headed in the wrong direction, and there is deep mistrust of our political system. The issue doesn’t lie within our ability to recognize, it lies within views on how to solve it. And so, we march forward with utter confidence, drowning ourselves in the white noise of party politics, meritless arguments, and the inability or will to take a scientific approach to something we don’t conventionally consider science; our well being.

There is, however, a way to solve our unique predicament.  (1) As a society we must embrace- or at the very least acknowledge- the importance of a population educated in the liberal arts and social sciences. This doesn’t mean diminishing the importance of other field; that would be contradictive to the core principals of a liberal education.  Rather, extent that same importance to liberal arts subjects as well.  Instead of streamlining young students into fields that earn the highest salary, expose them equally to the world of social sciences through a more diversely focused educational curriculum that demonstrates the legitimate societal value of all academic subjects.  (2) We have to normalize the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of the social sciences. Once it becomes normalized, the market, which serves as a tangible and monetary reflection of our values, will reward the new generations of social scientists with higher overall income and more visible merit recognition. One of the biggest discouraging factors for students interested in the social sciences is their legitimate fear of unemployment after graduation. Once we understand the intangible value, we can start assigning tangible value. (3) When our liberally-educated social science students matriculate into the economy, we must put their education to good use by imparting it’s important lessons on the public. That involves curbing the trend of telling people what to think about certain issues, and replacing it with an education of the philosophical ways and methods of thinking, then presenting them with the facts of a current issue, which they now have to tools to dissect.  Once our public internalizes this new way of thinking, we can engage in productive public discourse, champion truthful and beneficial governing practices, and start well on our way to living in a better world.