How do careers fit in a liberal arts education?
College is a time of experimentation, adventure, introspection and growth. Traditionally a liberal arts education aims to expand a student’s knowledge of the world, its history and traditions and to provide access to its great thinkers. Liberal arts aim to accomplish two seemingly contrary goals – to expand the mind while at the same time disciplining it.
Many advocates of a liberal arts education find career services to be vocational and crassly commercial. This is why career services at traditional universities are often treated as ancillary, relatively insignificant services that a university provides not because it should but because it kind of has to… Yet many employers find it difficult to know how or where to slot graduates of a liberal arts course of study. “Go get a graduate degree,” they say. “And we’ll talk with you again once you demonstrate knowledge of a discipline relevant to our company.”
We find these opposing views puzzling. For employers, liberal arts students with disciplined, creative minds bring skills and perspectives that can expand the boundaries of how their employees operate. For example, while the vast majority of my colleagues when I joined a major international accounting firm came from business schools or business programs, some of the very best performers came from liberal arts programs at major universities. Their shortcomings in technical areas were overcome by strong writing skills and an ability to think through business issues creatively and distinctively.
For students in liberal arts, the freedom to learn how to learn is a gift, but that gift begins to run out of value as graduation approaches. Learning how to position non-specific skills and where such skills may be relevant allows students to enjoy and focus on the valuable and fleeting time they have in college with the knowledge that they are prepared to demonstrate to relevant companies how they can be valuable contributors despite their general skills.