The need for liberal arts reform

Rui Shi

The economy remains at the forefront of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. A recent jobs report released by U.S. Department of Labor showed that zero net jobs were created in August, with unemployment riding at 9.1 percent. Where do college graduates stand in all of this?

The answer to that question is bleak. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that unemployment rates for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree under 25 was 10.7 percent in August 2011. This is a 40.7-percent increase over the past three years.

On a major by major basis, graduates in liberal arts have traditionally been the hardest hit. A 2009 survey by the Labor Department shows that fewer than half of college graduates under 25 in humanities and area studies are employed.

Statistics such as these have caused people to question the value and practicality of a liberal arts degree — there are even those who argue that it is time to kill the liberal arts degree. What we need, however, is not to put the axe on liberal arts. Instead, we need to re-envision a liberal arts curriculum that will better prepare students for the job market by incorporating coursework across disciplines.

Students in fields such as engineering and natural sciences have clearer paths, while the outlook for those in liberal arts is muddier. The problem with many liberal arts degrees is that they do not offer defined post-graduate prospects.

UT already has a solid foundation in which liberal arts curriculum reform could build upon. The Plan II Honors program implements a unique interdisciplinary structure that requires students to take classes ranging from physics to philosophy. While Plan II is a good first step, it still inherits the problem of definition.

Plan II students are essentially jacks of all trades, masters of none. There is not a set job market that carters specifically to Plan II students. It is necessary for Plan II to provide students with a more defined focus rather than a broad conglomeration of pieces from other disciplines.

People with a liberal arts degree could go on to earn a master’s or a law degree or become a writer or administrative assistant. They could also go into the public sector as a government employee, start their own business or work as a consultant. These examples demonstrate that the advantage of liberal arts is its versatility. But this versatility is also a part of the problem: faced with too many possibilities, some people are paralyzed.

What liberal arts lacks in clarity, it makes up in intangibles.

The liberal arts curriculum helps students hone their writing, critical-thinking and research skills. All of these skills are also applicable and necessary to be successful in other fields of study. A curriculum that would allow the application of liberal arts skills to domain specific areas such as business and bioscience would greatly expand the job pool.

The idea would be to create a curriculum that would begin with an intellectual core of classes with a heavy emphasis in the areas mentioned above, including writing and critical-thinking. Students would then be allowed to branch off into other areas of study such as business or natural sciences.

This would allow students to reinforce their technical side with skills such as information management, communications and human relations.

The most valuable tool that liberal arts provides is creativity. In research and industry, people are constantly trying to find new and better ways of solving the same problems.

Creativity is an integral part of that process because it allows people to think about problems in different ways or from different perspectives.

We must find a way to turn that creativity into marketability.

It’s time to rethink what we teach.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.