David Hoppe

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:: Liberal Arts

better than you think

by David Hoppe

Liberal. Arts.

Are there any more misunderstood words in the English language?

The first has been reduced to a catch-all for the sort of good intentions used as pavers in hell. The second runs a gamut that, depending on whose self is being served, includes everything from the Prince of Denmark’s soul-searching to piercing.

Together, when applied to a college education, they’re an easy punchline. Robyn Urback of Toronto’s National Post dished up the snark like this: “Many young men and women headed back to the postsecondary classroom this month equipped with texts on cultural relativism and stars in their eyes…Those stars will turn to dollar signs not long after graduation day, when the realization sets in that that medieval feminist studies degree they spent the last four years earning is not as marketable as they had anticipated.”  

The notion that an education in the liberal arts has become an unaffordable, unemployable luxury constitutes what passes for conventional wisdom these days. But a new study, “Making It Work: The Education and Employment of Recent Arts Graduates”, sponsored by the Center For Post Secondary Research at IU (snaap.indiana.edu), begs to differ.

Called SNAAP (for Strategic National Arts Alumni Project), the study surveyed 92,000 former students, from 150 institutions, who had graduated over the past three years. Indiana alums hailed from Butler, DePauw, IU, IUPUI. Purdue and St. Mary’s College. They held degrees in such disciplines as Studio Arts, Theatre, Design, Media Arts and Music.

Contrary to popular expectation, 64 percent of recent grads reported finding work relevant to their education. This turns out to be a higher percentage than Accounting or Biology majors, according to National Science Foundation stats.

But that’s not all. Over half the respondents said their educations provided them with critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as an ability to improve their performance based on feedback, that was paying off in the workplace.

These grads also scored high levels of community engagement, volunteerism and social tolerance.

This is not to say there aren’t plenty of potholes to contend with. Most grads are dealing with debt loads that are out of whack with their pay scales. Many also complain that their educations did not sufficiently address the entrepreneurial skills necessary to make a go of it outside of academe.

Still, the SNAAP study indicates a liberal arts education is neither as airy-fairy, nor as soul-crushing in outcome as some would have us believe.

 Working in the fields of the arts and culture (as opposed to and to be emphatically distinguished from the sausage-maker of celebrity) has never been a royal road, though all-too-many high-level administrators and tenured faculty can sometimes give that impression. That this may lead to a kind of buyer’s remorse for some grads is understandable.

It does not, however, make the liberal arts irrelevant. The critical thinking they enable is what used to be meant by a higher education. If our universities are no longer the place for this, what are they for? That, to paraphrase a sulky prince, is the question.