Liberal Education

The Confidence Factor in Liberal Education

With the US unemployment rate at 9 percent, it’s rational for college students to loseconfidence in the liberal arts and to opt for a vocational major.

Or is it? There is a compelling economic case for the liberal arts. Against those who call for more professional training, liberal educators should concede nothing. However, we do have a responsibility to move the debate beyond narrow economic terms. Every argument for liberal education should be an illustration of liberal thinking. Focusing on how liberal education is a pathway to success, we can also examine the very meaning of “success” and of the “liberal arts” themselves.

Individual success stories

When discussing with students the potential economic value of liberal education, spotlighting CEOs who majored in the liberal arts is a good icebreaker. Examples include Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell (biology); Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase (psychology and economics); Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Company (English and theater); Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard(philosophy and medieval history); Sue Kronick, group president of Federated Department Stores (Asian history); Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM (history), and Frederick W. Smith, founder and CEO of FedEx (economics). For students who think they need a business degree to be a CEO, the list can be an eye-opener. Of course, it’s also a flagrant instance of cherry-picking. It would be strange if crossing CEOswith liberal arts graduates did not yield a common subset. So we will find our best arguments by moving away from a list of all-stars and considering things from an aggregate viewpoint.

What’s it worth?

The most thorough study of majors in relation to earnings is What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors, a report of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (Carnevale, Strohl, and Melton 2011). At first glance, it doesn’t look good for the liberal arts. The report puts them below most other groupings of majors. However, the rankings are based on the earnings of those with a terminal bachelor’s degree. Fortunately, the report also includes data on the percentage of graduates in each major who continue to an advanced degree, as well as calculations of the average earnings boost provided by graduate study for students within each major. With this information, one can create an alternative ranking of majors.

Consider my own discipline, history, in relation to marketing. The median income forthose with a terminal bachelor’s degree in marketing is $58,000; terminal history majors rank lower, at $50,000. Yet, among the 171 majors compiled in the report, marketing is near the bottom in terms of the likelihood of graduate study (14 percent). This means that about half of history majors (the 46 percent who pursued graduate education) have a median income of $80,000, and are thus earning 60percent more than the vast majority of marketing graduates (the 86 percent who did not pursue graduate education). It also means that the median income of all history majors (those who attended graduate school plus those who did not) is higher than that of all marketing majors, by about 5 percent.

The economic case for the liberal arts rests on the belief that while they don’t necessarily track students directly into high-paying jobs, they do encourage lifelong learning and career versatility—qualities that pay off in the long run. In another recent study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (2011a) suggest that many college students make little cumulative progress in developing their basic skills. Summarizing their own work in a symposium published in the journal Society, the authors underscore that liberal arts students were an exception to their findings: “We note that students majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields, including social science, humanities, natural science, and mathematics, demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time… Greater gains in liberal-arts fields are at least in part related to faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing and students spending more time studying in these programs” (Arum and Roska 2011b, 205). If liberal arts students are more likely to improve while in college, and more likely than business and other professionally oriented students to pursue advanced study, then they are well equipped to adjust to ever-fluctuating economic circumstances. They are ideal candidates for any job that involves continuous learning.

Innovation versus vocation

In a presentation to the National Governors Association, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates (2011) spoke of the need to support state university programs that are “well-correlated to areas that actually create jobs.” He suggested that government should reduce funding for programs that do not measure well by this vocational standard. Two days after Gates’s presentation, in which he made no reference to liberal education, Steve Jobs (2011) unveiled the iPad 2: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with thehumanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.”

Both Gates and Jobs are college dropouts, but they offer varying attitudes toward their college experiences. Gates took a variety of challenging courses in math and computer science at Harvard University but has not credited any of them with shaping his worldview. In contrast, Jobs, in his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, reflected on how dropping out of Reid College allowed him to “drop in” to courses that changed his life. About a calligraphy course he audited at Reid, Jobs says that

it was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me… It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them… You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

Connecting “backwards” contradicts the theory that one should choose a major as a component of financial planning. It puts intellectual absorption ahead of career selection, giving the pursuit of knowledge a more adventurous and ultimately more valuable edge.

As Jobs says, there is an element of “trust” here: a faith that no social-scientific study can turn into a certainty. The situation can be likened to Pascal’s wager. What do we stand to lose in the future if we do not bet on the student’s versatility? Mounting pessimism toward liberal education could exacerbate our economic woes. There is a glaring risk that vocational education will not prepare young people to lift the country out of recession. If we lose confidence in liberal education while our globalcompetitors, such as China, take increased pride in it, we stand to lose everything.

Rising Asian confidence

In Hong Kong, all universities are now converting from a three-year British model to a four-year American model. Instead of filling the extra year with additional specialized courses, they are emphasizing liberal and general education. Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed recently elucidated the irony: “While many observers in the United States are calling for American higher education to become more vocational in orientation, the changes here [in Hong Kong] are motivated by a sense that students need more general education.”

“Chinese University Scraps Exams to Boost Teaching of Classic Books” was a headline in the South China Morning Post (Yau 2011). It is uncanny and unsettling to see Asian leaders surpass us in their enthusiasm for liberal education, which they believe we created in America. In 2011, I visited Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Lingnan boasts that it is the only university in southern China entirely based on American liberal educational principles. The Lingnan curriculum requires students to take four specific courses: Logic and Critical Thinking, The Making of Hong Kong, Understanding Morality, and World History and Civilization. Students must also take seven general education electives in five areas (at least one in each area): Creativity and Innovation; Humanities and the Arts; Management and Society; Science, Technology, and Society; and Values, Cultures, and Societies.

The primary lesson from my Hong Kong trips was this: The replication of American liberal education is beginning to surpass, in the quality of curriculum and tone of assurance, the American model it copies. Witness former Lingnan President Edward Chen’s (2007a, 2007b) address on the aims of liberal education, which he delivered to incoming freshmen. Chen, a distinguished economic historian, is adept at explaining the relevance of liberal education for economic innovation. The challenge today is to achieve “economies of scope” versus “economies of scale.” The old economy is based on the “Ford model.” The new economy is the “GE model.” Liberal education is even more pertinent today than in the past because it encourages “intellectual flexibility,” “adaptability,” “continuous innovation,” and “multicultural knowledge.” Reviewing the principles underlying Lingnan’s liberal system, Chen declares, “We are the best!” And he concludes, “Be a confident person!”

The address is also exemplary because Chen does not stake his defense of liberal education entirely on economic outcomes. He speaks of the importance of “responsibility,” “insight,” and “wisdom.” It is both stirring and disconcerting to observe Chen defend what he understands to be American values, with more grace and assurance than we generally find in our own universities.

The advent of liberal education in Hong Kong has fundamental implications for the United States. The first is that it could have an impact on China as a whole and threaten our reign as the quintessentially innovative nation. The official slogan to describe Hong Kong’s relationship to the mainland is “one country, two systems.” Yet, just as mainland China has created free economic zones, it could also begin to implement liberal education, if it perceives that the Hong Kong model is working well. Imagine the United States facing an economic competitor with a population of 1.3 billion, one that benefits from both a disciplined and inexpensive workforce and a momentous pool of college graduates with a liberal education and a confident and imaginative mindset.

What are the liberal arts, after all?

A second implication has to do with the very meaning of the liberal arts. Lingnan University integrates business and technology into its general education requirements for all students. In the United States, however, we have largely frozenthe distinction between liberal and professional education. The Center on Education and the Workforce’s study of college majors does not even include the sciences in its definition of the liberal arts. It restricts the meaning of liberal arts to the humanities—history, English, philosophy, and so forth.

In antiquity, the liberal arts were oriented toward the “free” professions of politics and law, whereas productive labor was associated with slavery. With the abolition of slavery and the amplification of civil society in modern times, “liberty” now encompasses “commerce,” as Benjamin Constant (1988) brilliantly underscored in his 1819 speech “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns.” Yet, we still tend to segregate the liberal arts from the entrepreneurial arts, treating the former as the humanities, as aristocratically separated from practical activity—an ill-advised segregation.

It could well be argued that business and engineering have much in common with studio art and theater because both involve imagining, designing, and prototyping new creations. “By businesses, I mean any organizations where people work, including startups, small businesses, big businesses, government offices and agencies, hospitals, theaters, museums, temples, and churches,” writes Alex Hiam near the beginning of Business Innovation for Dummies (2010, 1). Hiam, who has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Harvard and an MBA from the University of California–Berkeley, uses the concept of innovation to build bridges between the liberal and business arts in his writings. Our university disciplines should do the same.

The liberal arts are the disciplines that memorialize and foster inventive action, boththrough their subject matter and their teaching methods. It is absurd to exclude engineering and business, which are imaginative and decision-making activities. Conversely, it may be time to question whether some of the methodologies in the humanities and sciences are truly liberal. When a methodology focuses on what the mass of people are conditioned to do and not what creative people can do, it is not liberal. The opposite of liberal is not professional but deterministic. Academic claims that humans are shaped by gender, race, class, discourse, power, neurochemistry, genetics, sibling birth order, etc. are illiberal—unless the epistemology of causality yields to the epistemology of creativity. This is to say that the knowledge of how we are constrained must morph into a consciousness of how we can use that knowledge to transform ourselves and positively influence the world.

Liberal education is the whole educational arena in which knowledge is manifest for the transformation, not merely the description, of our nature. The philosopher Richard McKeon (1998) stated that the liberal arts highlight the interaction of humans as “self-perfecting intelligences.” Human nature is continuously affected by our decisions about how to study it. As McKeon observed, liberal education is not a one-way process in which we look at a formed subject matter, the human species. It is a “reflexive” process in which the nature of humanity is formed by the study of humanity.

The liberal arts seek to engender persons who are inspired by past achievements and are confident of their creative potential. These are persons who will be successful, who will fashion value of different kinds—commercial, political, artistic, spiritual—up and down the income ladder. The liberal disciplines are not vocational, and they are not the humanities narrowly defined. They are the arts that remind us of the deeds of free human beings and the arts that make us free.


Arum, R., and J. Roksa. 2011a. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2011b. “Limited Learning on College Campuses” Society 48 (3): 203–7.

Carnevale, A. P., J. Strohl, and M. Melton. 2011. What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Chen, E. 2007a. “Liberal Arts Education at Lingnan (Part 1),” YouTube video, 5:01, posted by “ChoiKaiKwong,” July 18,

———. 2007b. “Liberal Arts Education at Lingnan (Part 5),” YouTube video, 9:03, posted by “ChoiKaiKwong,” July 18,

Constant, B. 1988. “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns.” In Constant: Political Writings, edited by B. Fontana, 307–28. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gates, B. 2011. “Flip the Curve: Student Achievement vs. School Budgets.” Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the National Governors Association, Washington, DC, February.

Hiam, A. 2010. Business Innovation for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing.

Jaschik, S. 2011. “The American Model.” Inside Higher Ed, May 2,

Jobs, S. 2005. Commencement address delivered at Stanford University, Stanford, CA, June 12.

———. 2011. “Apple Special Event.” Apple Event Videos, 71:51. March 2.

McKeon, R. 1998. “Man and Mankind in the Development of Culture and the Humanities.” In Selected Writings of Richard McKeon, Vol. 2, Culture, Education, and the Arts, edited by Z. K. McKeon and W. G. Swenson, 107–20. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Yau, E. 2011. “Chinese University Scraps Exams to Boost Teaching of Classic Books.” South China Morning Post, January 26,

Daniel Gordon is professor of history and associate dean of the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts.

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