Looking back on the benefits of a liberal arts education

It’s been over 30 years since I received my first graduate degree, and I have no regrets about the liberal arts foundation of my higher education. While the question “How can I get the best job?” has encouraged much of higher education to become glorified technical schools, to limit one’s education to employability for employability’s sake is to miss out on what education is supposed to be. What’s more, even in the context of employment, it limits ones opportunities down the road.

In my professional life, I have been involved in teaching, social services and healthcare. At each stage of my career path, my liberal arts education helped not only in opening some doors, but also in dealing with life once I walked through them. In today’s environment, with the speed of both technological and social change, one can expect to have to change jobs or to get some retraining for the workforce. A liberal arts education teaches you how to learn, allowing you to adapt to new challenges, requirements and settings.

I double majored in English and Religion & Philosophy, leading to all of the predictable jokes about my supposedly nonexistent job prospects. At the time, I wasn’t worried because I expected to either teach or enter the ministry. While those fields were good for me at first, I began to see that there were other professions that would suit me better. I eventually went back to get further training for my subsequent jobs, but my background in liberal arts was with me every step of the way.

Learning liberally

I grew up in a small town, which led to my being a bit naïve when I entered college. I was surprised to find that my college professors were intent upon not only teaching me “things,” but also making me struggle with what those “things” meant. Whether it was history, science, literature, music, art or philosophy, everything was grounded in larger questions concerning what it means to be alive in the world. I was introduced to Shakespeare, who wrote more on the human condition than anyone else in the English language, and who more importantly dramatized the conflicts and struggles common to us all. I saw Huck Finn wrestle with the notions of race and slavery; I saw Atticus Finch strive for justice in the segregated South. I came to understand the intricate beauties of poetry, which I began to see as our own “open canon of scripture,” to which we continue to add with each passing year.

There was no condemnation for stepping out of the boundaries. There was just the exhilarating process of examining life, love, joy, sorrow, struggle and friendship. And when what you’re studying is life itself, your education naturally extends beyond the classroom. Some of my best memories from college are the debates and conversations with friends over lunch, about what Professor So-and-so said in class or a project that one of my friends was working on.

It was a wonderful and challenging milieu that fostered an appreciation for others and, in turn, a more progressive consideration of life itself — an outlook that was at once more hopeful than the provincial views I had grown up with and more aware of our past and present social inequities.

Living my education

That being the case, it still took most of my college career to get to the point of being able to think through the concepts I was being exposed to. Many are not developmentally ready to fully profit from their education in their late teens and early twenties. Education is a life-long struggle. For example, I had a conversation with a high school classmate whom I happened to meet years after graduation and who had become a successful banker. He mentioned our high school English teacher and noted that, “We really need what we learned in English class even more when we are in our thirties and forties — much more than we could realize at the time.”

A foundation in the liberal arts forces the student to grapple with the realities and vagaries of life, both before and after they receive their degree. This is especially important in the real world, which doesn’t curve your grades. In the ups and downs I have faced since graduating, I have always had something essential to fall back on; lessons that extended beyond employment and paychecks that could be re-applied to life as it happens.

So by all means, get all the training you can, but make sure you’re learning more than just what’s on the test. Life is more than your first job; educate yourself liberally, and you’ll be prepared to live accordingly.


Charles Kinnaird is one of those English Majors who went on to find gainful employment in the varied fields of teaching, social services, and healthcare. He makes his home in the South with his family along with a menagerie of pets. His writing interests, as seen on his blog, Not Dark Yet (http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com), include politics, spirituality, social commentary, and striving toward the common good.

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19 Responses to “Looking back on the benefits of a liberal arts education”

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  2. lynchie says:

    and we should do the same with the bullies who shove their religion down our throats. Believe what you want but don’t tell me I have to or have to give you extra accommodation because you say your religion is supreme

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  4. Indigo says:

    We’re slip-sliding our way culturally through a treacherous watershed right now, abandoning educational practices based on the trivium and quadrivium and embracing a technological firestorm of spin off (spins off? spin offs?) from the Turing Machine. Literacy itself is shifting ground and language study now likes to talk about Pascal + and HTML as if those were actually languages. Okay, machine languages. And in so doing even as culturally reactionary an institution as the Roman Church dropped its only really solid treasure, the Latin language, in favor growing confusion and a veritable Babel of authoritarian misrepresentations seasoned lightly with the occasional Mother Teresa or Pope Frances.

    Ah, but I elaborate digressively. Back to the shaky point that once Guttenburg unleashed the printing press on an unsuspecting public, literacy raised its head and suddenly authority crumpled in the face of wide-spread learning and even Reformation. That’s where we are but we haven’t got to the Hundred Years War yet. Apple or Google? Kindle or Nook? Either way, bow down! The struggle to hold on to a humanist value system in the face of these technological innovations/interventions is fraught with the perils of unemployment, trivialization, and even education. As nicho points out below, these days, education is merely job training or certification.

    At a guess, the traditional humanities, tempered by the techniques of the technocrats will hold the field but at the price of side-lining the public while the elite acquire wisdom in private schools where the doors open only to impressive outlays of the current One True and Only Gaud, Mammon.

  5. nicho says:

    Liberal arts is about “education.” Most of what passes for “education” these days is “training” or “certification” that will get you the ticket that will qualify you to be considered for a job.

  6. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I have always been able to turn my liberal arts education into employment, but more importantly, I could clean up in Trivial Pursuit games.

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  8. Ryan says:

    I had been in liberal arts course many years ago. I thought I wouldn’t enjoy the course at first. However, the more I get to know literature, music and philosophy the more I appreciate it. I felt in love more in the course when I studied literary art criticism. It completely changed my view on life and in the world. Thanks for bringing back those memories.

  9. Elizabeth Gutermann says:

    AWESOME article!! I agree wholeheartedly, and I plan to share at least the first paragraph (if not the entire piece) with my students. I teach precalculus and AP Calculus at a title 1 school. All my seniors who are college bound are focused on one thing and one thing only- which major will get them the highest paying job. I understand why kids from lower income families, first generation college students, would feel this way, but it makes me sad! I try to encourage them, by all means, to go for that engineering degree, but not at the expense of becoming a better educated, more well-rounded, deeper-thinking person and citizen. College is a chance to expand your mind and grow on an intellectual and a personal level, not just career training. You put this point so eloquently that perhaps it might just hit home for some of my kids.

    For what it’s worth, I too have a liberal arts degree- classical languages and literature was my major. My minor in mathematics is what got me my job, it was my proof that I knew what I was talking about mathematically. That being said, not a day goes by when I dot use or appreciate my liberal arts background.

  10. lynchie says:

    I credit my wife with so much of my kids upbringing and making sure they stayed curious. My daughter got involved in dance at a young age. She ended up with a masters in fine arts and currently dances for the Paris Ballet. Make a living but is so intensely happy doing what she loves. My son has a masters in computer engineering and is currently IT manager at Carnegie Mellong University. Both are able to discuss a variety of topics, are open to new ideas and weren’t surprised when i told them if NASA phoned me tomorrow and had room on the next trip to Mars with no possiblity of return I would pack in 20 minutes.
    Our generation has ruined the world for kids. We have let greed and a lack of appreciation for the arts be given a back seat. We value only the most vicious of business owners far more than a teacher or professor who can capture the imagination of their students and allow them to reach for what they really want.
    As far as the folks in the exburbs being dispassionate i think it is fear. They realize they sold out and they realize they are unhappy and that their life is just a grind and they have given up any hope of reaching up for something unattainable. I am surrounded by grouchy, unhappy, old assholes who hate their lives, are afraid of everything and cling to the false hope that they can go back in time. They only listen to people and ideas that reflect their fears. The hate in this country is staggering, but it is driven by fear.

  11. Bill_Perdue says:

    Democrats always seem to be settling on behalf of others.

    It’s not true that we don’t don’t win. We’re beating that pants off of Democrats with our proposal for a decent minimum wage. We’ve won in Seattle, LA and SF in spite of the efforts of Democrats to pander to employers. In Seattle our candidate got a huge majority, nearly 100,000 and forced an Obama toady off the city council.

  12. Bill_Perdue says:

    Irrespective of some peoples sanitary habits, I think active racists, bigots and misogynists have no place in schools and no rights to organize their thuggery in schools.

    Schools should provide corrective education to combat these bigotries but when bigots begin to publicly bully and harass they should be expelled as should teachers who don’t intervene on behalf of female, LGBT and students of color.

  13. UncleBucky says:

    Correct. I got the hunger from a select set of teachers in History, the Arts, Lit, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and even Maths. Not all teachers “recruited” me, so to speak, but enough did in each skill set or area of learning that I am intensely curious.

    I have a niece and nephew. The niece is studying graphics and art, but outside of her narrow dedication, there is almost a “talk to the hand” about anything else. The nephew is interested in things, but again, it’s not passionate, it’s more of a practical curiosity of picking up skills for the degree. They are boring, never talk with a lust about what they are studying or doing, and it seems that the “teach the test” attitude that the parents project, like “well, we can’t talk about that, since that’s not what they test” had kinda corralled them in a very narrow and dispassionate collection of knowledge, facts and skills. With a seasoning of a negative, harsh and almost Calvinistic reading of the world.

    Editorial – What is it in the ring exurbs of Detroit that makes some white picket fence dwellers so privileged but so dispassionate and negative about the world??

    I knew the Gen-Xers got hammered by the 2001 meltdown of jobs and a future, but the millennials (some of them, at least) have really bought that the world hates them.

    “Open to new things and to change…” Um…..

  14. NotHardly says:

    Excellent. My experience with my undergraduate liberal arts degree reflects yours … I was in law enforcement and the education I received at my little alma mater made sure I could think, think fast, and use my best offensive and defensive weapon, my brain, in each and every encounter in each and every level of real or perceived risk to ensure I made the best decision. I went on to get a PhD and taught for years. None of any of my career tracks would have been possible if the only thing I was given was training instead of a liberal arts education.

  15. lynchie says:

    I grew up in Canada and went to McGill in Montreal and got my B.A. I remember my history teach Mr. Sonely tell the class on the first day that he was charged with teach us how to learn. He was a great mentor and would spend many evenings a week have group discussions in the library of any and all subjects. He made me curious, he made me want to seek two sides of an issue and most of all to read and have a thirst for what the world has for us all. In the U.S. we have fallen to the role of teaching kids to pass a test instead of testing to find out the general knowledge of the students on a subject. Because of this I find younger generations totally devoid of curiousity, devoid of any desire to learn more, to research and most importantly be open to new things and to change.

  16. Houndentenor says:

    No, neither Democrats nor Republicans will ever carry out such a program and Socialists have never gotten above 1% of the vote. It’s a nice idea but only that.

    In the meantime I’d settle for reducing student loan interest to the prime rate and for states restoring their funding of public universities. The lack of state support for the “state” universities is a main cause of the drastic increases in tuition since that support in some cases has dropped to over 80% to less than 20% of operating expenses.

  17. 2karmanot says:

    “Racists, misogynists and bigots should not be allowed in educational settings.” This might be a little iffy Bill, after all, when remembering the classics, we are taught Diogenes believed that virtue was better revealed in action than in theory.So, he often defecated in the streets to gather a crowd, when he was not sleeping in a ceramic pot. Hmmmm, come to think of it……………

  18. 2karmanot says:

    Well done Charles. Our experiences seem to be quite similar. I once quipped on these boards that my PhD came in handy for filling out government forms. What that meant was using a sound humanities foundation to think, reason, explore, research and act. Indeed: “not only in opening some doors, but also in dealing with life once I walked through them” Now, near the end of my life I carry the richness of all that experience when all else is slipping away. Education is the treasure that no one can take away: our greatest and final treasure.

  19. Bill_Perdue says:

    Except for the rich, education should be free from kindergarten through graduate schools.It should be public and secular. All cult schools should be secularized without compensation.

    Religious cults should be prohibited from interfering in civil affairs like marriage/divorce, child rearing, adoption, education and the right of children to be emancipated from bigoted parents.

    Racists, misogynists and bigots should not be allowed in educational settings.

    Students getting a college or technical education or preparing for a life in the arts are at work and should be paid a wage equal to high trade union wages and be, like all workers, be guaranteed good housing and socialized medicine.

    Democrats and Republicans will never carry out a program like that, socialists will.

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