The echoing cry of parents and confused relatives alike: what do you, like, do with a liberal arts degree? It’s an often-asked question, born from a genuine desire for parents to see their kids succeed financially. The image of the renegade intellectual, misguided in their quest for justice, flipping burgers at a McDonald’s is somehow crystallized in the American conscious. But it’s also a fundamentally misguided understanding of what the liberal arts is. Here are the best answers you can give when the unwanted questions at family reunions come-a-knockin.
The Liberal Arts Teaches You How to Get Things Done
Whether you specialize in history or philosophy, literature or art, the liberal arts are fundamentally about applying academic study to the real, lived experiences of people. We don’t research history to write history books; we research history to change our future. The ranks of activists, community organizers, politicians, and judges are lined with those who studied, and took seriously, the liberal arts.
Activist James Baldwin could not have persuaded so many to the cause of racial justice without his beautiful written work. President Barrack Obama studied Political Science and English Literature at Columbia, and would never have pursued a law degree and politics if not convinced of the possibilities that exist in an imagined future.
The liberal arts teach us to desire the unknown and the innovative. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said: “if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
To get things done, you must inspire the world to want those things. If you want justice, inspire the world to see the poor taken care of. If you want peace, teach the world to see a horizon without weapons. The liberal arts teaches you to see a vision of the future that will inspire the world to change.
The Liberal Arts Teaches You to Do a Little of Everything
In a hyper-specialized modern economy, there is a sore lack of role-players. The kinds of people that can hop into a team, learn the basics of what’s going on and then contribute. The liberal arts, by nature, asks you to study a wide variety of subjects and gain functional expertise. This is incredibly valuable when you join a company only to get assigned to a new project you never expected to be on, or when you freelance, hopping from gig-to-gig on a monthly basis.
The modern economy is being rebuilt to fit the expertise that liberal arts majors have. It’s a well-known fact that employees are expected to change roles every two to five years of their career. That’s an unprecedented amount of mobility compared to past generations. The liberal arts prepares you for the rapid mobility that many or degrees and programs do not.
The Liberal Arts Teaches You to Work With What You Got
What’s a common experience for many liberal arts majors, whether they study Creative Writing or Communications? Staying up the night before an essay is due, looking at a blank page sandwiched between two notebooks full of research notes, unable to write a single word.
Sometimes, you must push through adversity to get to the result. You may not think you have much, but the liberal arts teach you to think deeply about what you have and how you can maximize its use.
You may not think that your ability to write is a lot; you may not think your ability to lead a team on a project is super cool. But the reality is, if you can combine those skills with functional expertise in an industry, you have suddenly become the highest-paid employee in the room.
The liberal arts don’t teach you facts. It teaches you how to use the knowledge you have and leverage it into more agency.
So when you’re standing in the food line at the neighborhood barbecue, and you see the neighbors approaching with the loaded question on their lips, now you know what to say. Use these opportunities to pitch yourself with confidence, internalize these arguments. The difference between the liberal arts majors that become thought leaders, politicians, and artists and the ones that work at the local indie coffee shop is that the politicians learned to pitch themselves. The artists learned to sell their art, and the thought leaders learned how to speak to a broad audience.
The liberal arts teach you so much about how to live a full, broad, and happy life. They teach you so much how the skills necessary to survive in a complex and shifting economy. They teach you so much about how to be a proud member of your community. But you still must do the work. Go forth! Show your Aunt Sally the value of the liberal arts.