Going Beyond Your Major: The Importance of Liberal Education

We want to stress up front that we are not arguing that financial considerations are unimportant in choosing a major or in selecting the courses one takes in college.  We are not saying that anyone should disregard financial concerns. We’re not complete morons.

The current advice given to prospective students is that choosing a major is the most important decision they can make.  They are encouraged by parents, politicians and a myriad of pundits to select a major that offers the highest salary upon graduation.  Education is increasingly becoming preparation for a specific occupation, and many students only want to take courses in their major. Courses beyond the major, e.g., humanities, are not seen as practical or as valuable on the job market. This is a huge misconception. 

As courses like philosophy, language, and literature disappear from programs of study and are replaced by specialized courses aimed at a specific occupations, the purpose of a college education narrows.  A college education becomes nothing more than occupational training. 

A broad or liberal education includes a wide range of courses and knowledge. This provides many benefits.  It is important to consider in making educational choices, e.g., what courses to take or what major to choose. It’s something you should not disregard.

Before we go on we’ll present our view or understanding of a broad or liberal education.  A liberal education is one that goes beyond an emphasis only on courses and knowledge in a specialized topic area or your major.  Its purpose is to develop broad capacities that can be applied to any area or any kind of job.

The main objectives of a liberal education are adaptability, integration, and lifelong learning. It includes developing ability in analytical thinking, creative problem solving, written and oral communication, and adopting multiple perspectives.

Liberal education is compatible with any major, specialization, or professional program. It simply means that attaining the broad objectives and developing the general abilities of liberal education is something that should be central to your education.  We’re not just saying this.  A broad education really can make a difference.

A simple way to broaden your education and add to its value is by taking a wide range of courses outside your major, especially the humanities.  Also, you should take seriously courses you are required to take in the humanities and other areas outside of your major.  They deserve as much attention as courses in your major. They are important.  They really are.

Why Liberal Education?

The short answer to the question is given by taking an informed and realistic look at the world in which we live. Liberal education is the best preparation for both today’s world and the unknown future. We are living in a world shaped by rapidly changing economic, technological, and political factors that have a direct influence on our ability to make a living and live a satisfying life. The objectives of broad or liberal education (i.e., adaptability, integration, and lifelong learning) are obviously important to surviving and thriving in today’s and tomorrow’s world. A strictly specialized education that doesn’t teach these objectives is of limited value.

Liberal Education and the Changing Employment Market

Twenty five years ago it was predicted that people entering the job market could expect to change careers, not just jobs, up to five times over their working lives. Studies of job and career change since that early projection uniformly point to the same conclusion. Today’s generation will change careers and jobs much more often than previous generations. It is clear from the projections that the days of employment stability experienced by previous generations are gone.

Another change predicted is that the nature of employment itself will change. Many people will work for firms in a capacity similar to consultants or free lancers. They will sell their services to organizations for a limited period or for certain projects or tasks. These temporary professionals will be self-employed rather than employees of the organizations for which they work. They might work for multiple organizations at the same time.  These people obviously need broad talents and they must continually learn.  These are aspects of liberal education.

People may work in jobs and careers that were nonexistent shortly before they entered the job market. In some cases, people will create a new position for themselves or develop a new service to offer to organizations.

Alternatively, careers may disappear.  For example, new products or manufacturing processes can make your area of specialization obsolete, and you must find a new career. 

In these situations, a broad education will be a great help.   A wide knowledge base and flexible skill set are more valuable than a narrow one.

The abilities developed as part of a liberal education--i.e., adaptability, integration, and lifelong learning-- are essential for success in an economic environment characterized by instability.  A world with an accelerating pace of change requires an ability to adaptLifelong learning is necessary to routinely keep up with new methods, techniques, and approaches as they emerge

Creativity and innovation are also requirements for success in a changing world.  Integration of what’s good about the old with the new as well as the ability to integrate approaches and knowledge from a variety of areas is necessary to create new products, services, and careers.

Broad Education vs. Specialization on the Job Market

It seems that there is no doubt that students with majors in some fields do better financially than those in others.  This finding is based, however, on what students with different majors are currently worth on the job market, i.e., entry-level income.  There is some data that show as the number of years on the job increase those with a broader or liberal education advance more quickly and make more money.  This makes sense because as one climbs the organizational ladder an expanded skill set is needed to perform.  If all you know is your specialized area, you can advance only so far.

Engineering is an example of where a narrow education in the major is not enough.  Engineering programs are typically loaded with engineering courses with little room for electives like liberal studies courses.  Upon graduation engineering majors know a lot about their field but very little about other areas.  The result is that on the job new hires perform fine in engineering aspects of the job, but not in broader areas of the business, e.g., economic and social analysis, written and oral communication, and customer relations. 

Engineering firms have put pressure on universities to expand the curriculum of engineering programs to include a wider range of non-major courses, including liberal studies courses.  It is noteworthy that the call for a less narrow engineering education is coming from the outside, i.e., engineering firms, and not from inside universities.   

It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t always need a specific major to get a job in a specific industry.  Think of how often you have asked people in a certain career their major in college and you’re surprised by their answer.  Of course, you can’t pursue some careers, e.g., chemistry and medicine, without specialized training.  However, these days, people who at one time would stick to a single, specialized career path, change careers.

Many kinds of businesses are not that interested in hiring new employees with only specialized training. They are interested in graduates who have a broad education.  There are studies that demonstrate that business graduates with an education in which they learned abilities like writing, critical thinking, and lifelong learning are more attractive to employers.  They want students who are educated and not just trained.

So How Can This Be Applied?

Obviously, there is absolutely nothing wrong with considering economic value when choosing a major. It would be a mistake not to. However, it is an even bigger mistake to consider only the money a given major may provide. It is very important to find something you are truly interested in learning. Of course, it’s really nice if you can find something that you love and will yield a healthy income – and staying open to a broader education will provide you with the best chance of finding just that.