Liberal Arts: The Road to Unemployment?



Image Credits: Drina Lim


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The Ivory Tower

“It’s great that you’re pursuing your passion… But what are you going to do with that?” If you’re a liberal arts major, you might be acquainted with the subtext of doubt tinging the response of someone who has just asked what you’re studying in university. Over the years, it seems that students have been facing mounting pressure to venture into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) career fields, as they are deemed to be more lucrative and valuable, and therefore prestigious pursuits, in an era of evolving technology.

Consequently, the world has collectively begun to discredit the value that the liberal arts bring to society, which encompass subjects like philosophy, sociology, literature, anthropology, and political science.

There also persists an ongoing perception that pursuing these subjects means to sit in an ivory tower, disengaging from the practical concerns of the real world. According to the Harvard Business Review (2019), proposed legislation would support funding for certain American colleges based on job acquisition and the abolishment of “fluff” such as the search for truth, public service, and improving the human condition from their mission statements.

The Overeducated Barista

Furthermore, this stigma is largely attributed to the cynical outlook that pursuing an arts degree will lead you to become an unemployment statistic, while STEM graduates have indeed been projected to command the highest median salaries. A liberal arts education might not equip you with the same vocational training and technical skills for a specific job scope, but it will not set you on the ruinous path to a bleak financial future.

93 per cent of employers prize soft skills like critical thinking, complex problem solving, creativity, and clear communication, more highly than an applicant’s degree.

Did you know that more than a third of Fortune 500 CEOs graduated with a liberal arts degree? An Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) report demonstrates how 93 per cent of employers prize soft skills like critical thinking, complex problem solving, creativity, and clear communication, more highly than an applicant’s degree. Only 16 per cent stated “knowledge and skills that apply to a specific field or position” as more important for propelling one towards long-term career success. 

Locally, liberal arts graduates are also held in high regard by employers, proving to be strong contestants across various fields: According to the Singapore Graduate Employment Survey (2017), Yale-NUS graduates hit an employment rate of more than 93 per cent within their first six months of graduation, exceeding that of 88.9 per cent among 11,000 graduates from NUS, NTU, and SMU (commonly thought of as the “Big Three Universities” in Singapore). Since then, their employment rates have remained steady and starting salaries have also climbed—the same survey conducted in 2020 showed how the median gross monthly salary of Yale-NUS graduates in 2020 grew by 6.3 per cent from 2019, and nine in 10 had secured employment—as they continued to thrive in diverse industries like the public sector, business and management consultancy, arts, entertainment, and recreation, and information and communications technology. In fact, in 2010, Steve Jobs famously echoed the sentiments of other major tech CEOs that liberal arts training—with its attention to critical thinking and creativity—is vital to creating brilliant technology.

This attests to how a liberal arts education arms you with soft skills and larger perspectives that will allow you to establish a successful career path and bring an edge to numerous industries. According to the research of Dr Detweiler, President of the Great Lakes Colleges Association and founder of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance, liberal arts majors are also “more likely than their counterparts to be leaders, contributors, and more civically engaged.” Whether the undergraduate experience drives an individual to become an asset to society depends on how it shapes essential learning outcomes, such as instilling personal and social responsibility, and developing both intellectual and practical skills, not merely the scope of technical training itself (although it is still highly important); ergo, the narrative that an arts education is instrumentally “useless” to society is unfounded.

The Value of a Degree

Moreover, career paths are rarely ever linear, especially with technological advancements disrupting many fields, or rendering them obsolete. With students today projected to undergo an average of 11.9 career switches throughout their lives, career mobility is gaining traction, as it is now crucial to continuously expand your skillset to stay relevant and learn to adapt well to change. Therefore, I think that one’s (both soft and hard) skills and experiences might overshadow the value of a degree, and that it is beneficial for universities to prepare graduates for a diverse range of industries and equip them to face a future that bears tremendous uncertainty.

Thoughts From an Arts Major

Personally, I believe an education should not serve the sole purpose of preparing people for the workforce—education also holds intrinsic value, and a liberal arts education, like the study of philosophy, inculcates the critical thinking skills citizens need to participate fully in a democracy. I trust that there is an inherent goodness in exploring these subjects, as it creates value for who you are as a person and citizen—it teaches you how to truly think for yourself, expand your worldview by seeking to understand society beyond the limited scope of experiences you hold, and engage with ideas of what is possible to build a future that is upright and just for all.

Whether we are engineers, scientists, writers, or artists, we all play our individual and collective roles in enacting tangible changes in the world, working hand-in-hand towards building one that is virtuous and just.

By perpetuating this stigma surrounding the liberal arts, it might siphon many creative and inquisitive minds into pursuing career fields they may end up miserable in. (In fact, human creativity is the one thing AI may never be able to truly replicate.) The cultivation of capitalist values may have caused us to internalize the idea that to amass wealth is to attain ultimate success and happiness, but it is up to us to decide what brings us fulfillment and value in life. 

Through understanding the breadth and depth of the human experience, I believe that the liberal arts hold the potential to shape cultures, ignite reform, and inspire people all over the world. Telling great stories is life-changing in its own right—just think of Harry Potter, which defined a whole generation, or any book or movie that has irreversibly altered your outlook on life. Whether we are engineers, scientists, writers, or artists, we all play our individual and collective roles in enacting tangible changes in the world, working hand-in-hand towards building one that is virtuous and just.

Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!

Dead Poets’ Society