A Liberal Arts Degree Is the Credential Kids Will Need for Success After College
Finalizing a college list is a daunting task for most teenagers; throw in majors that may affect future careers, and you probably have a stressed out child worried that they don’t know what they want to do in life.
While it is perfectly normal for most 17-year-olds not to have their entire life mapped out, as parents, we are quite apprehensive about sending our children to college without a set path. This is probably why we encourage them to decide majors based on their strongest subjects in high school. For example, if a child scored well in the sciences, then engineering might seem like a no-brainer; or if a child has an aptitude for math, then a career in finance is the obvious choice, right? It turns out that this isn’t always the best approach to education or a career.
The global workplace is rapidly changing. No one knows what jobs will exist in 10 or 20 years and, because of this, companies are looking for employees who not only possess knowledge in their required field, but who also have transferable skills such as effective communication, critical thinking and decision-making. “The nature of every role today changes fairly quickly, with daily duties often changing over a period of two to five years. Recruiters are likely to reduce their demand for traditional formal qualifications and ‘hard skills,’ instead focusing on ‘soft skills’: general traits and attributes like risk-taking, fairness, curiosity and problem-solving,” writes Grace Kerrison, the managing director for the Asia-Pacific region at pymetrics, a job placement firm.
Any child growing up today will probably have multiple jobs during their lifetime; these skills will make adapting to a new environment easier. And the best way to gain these skills is to ensure kids gain exposure to a range of subjects, rather than being boxed into something very narrow. Career agility is only possible when people are flexible in their learning approach and are open to working on and developing new skills that add to their existing range of knowledge. Gaining exposure to subjects such as philosophy, history, natural sciences, languages can help students develop an interdisciplinary and innovative approach to problem-solving and big-picture thinking. Only having in-depth working knowledge about one field, without being appreciative of different disciplines, may risk obsolescence.
This is where an education grounded in the liberal arts come in. Rather than focusing only on one particular major or stream, a liberal arts education allows students to explore social sciences, humanities and natural sciences, along with their intended major. It is a “candy store” approach, so to speak – where students can take a mix of subjects to create their own curriculum, or where their strengths can be optimised to have a multidisciplinary approach to absorbing knowledge. This gives them a more holistic education with skills and lessons that can be applied to any industry. Andrew Martin, dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan in the US, advances this point in his 2017 Economic Times article; he writes that a liberal arts degree offers students the tools to adapt to new conditions. This is probably why you find that one-third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees.
Speaking from experience, I can tell you that at 18, I chose to study psychology at college, as I had scored 90% in psychology in my 12th-grade board exams (by current standards, a perfect score). I followed this up with a Master’s degree in tourism management and another in marketing management; currently, I work as a college counsellor. Psychology may be a recurring theme in each field, but I didn’t take the “normal” or expected path and become a professional psychologist. And that’s why I encourage families to let children explore different subjects and experiences in college – subjects and experiences that can shape their career choices. Having time to explore options will teach them responsibility and ‘adulting’ in the literal sense and will enable them to zero in on their interests and passions in a variety of contexts; rather this, than wrapping up college and realizing they don’t want to pursue their major into a career.
Having said this, we need to start helping our children plan for this paradigm shift early. Instead of simply focusing on ‘scoring subjects,’ we need to help our children break the mould and encourage them to develop curiosity and a plan to acquire the skills they want. This long-term thinking will ensure they are employable in the future. At the 2017 NBA All-Star Technology Summit in New Orleans, Mark Cuban, speaking to Bloomberg, said that he thinks in 10 years there will be a greater demand for liberal arts majors than there will be for program-specific and engineering majors. This is, in part, due to advances in machine-learning and artificial intelligence that are enabling processes to be automated. Simple data and code can be processed without human input, which is why there will be a need for people who can synthesize data and offer varying perspectives based on analysis. This is probably why even technology-based universities like MIT require all undergraduate students to complete eight subjects in the humanities, arts and social sciences: to “deepen knowledge in a variety of cultural and disciplinary areas, practice critical thinking, and develop vital skills while trying something new.”
This phenomenon is getting traction in India as well. In the last few years, we have seen a number of new universities that follow the liberal arts philosophy arduously. Some of the best known are FLAME University and Ashoka University, both of which aim to provide students – one of whom is my child — with a world-class liberal arts education.
In today’s fast-paced world, an education that is flexible and focuses on interdisciplinary skills is more relevant than ever in helping our children succeed and stand out in any environment.