The Benefits of a Liberal Arts Degree

People always ask me what I intend to do with my philosophy education. I always tell them, “I’ll ask you why you want French fries with your order.”

Then I tell them the story of Thales, the Ancient Greek philosopher who used his knowledge of astronomy to predict good weather for olives, bought all the olive presses in town, and made a fortune when the harvest was abundant.

Thales wasn’t in love with money, but he made his lucrative investment to prove that philosophy is not useless, and that philosophers can succeed in the “real” world.

Not everyone thinks philosophy is a waste of time, but many think it’s a waste of loans and scholarship money. Why read a dead Greek guy’s 2.5 thousand-year-old book when you could get a degree in political science from a living professor, and use that degree to contribute to modern, real-world politics?

Philosophy students, and their friends in the liberal arts department, have been there and heard that. They deal with the scoffers like Socrates did, treating them gently, but refuting their objections.

Liberal arts and philosophy don’t doom you to sitting on top of a mountain or mastering the art of the grande macchiato. Likewise, a “real” and “practical” degree doesn’t guarantee instant employment in your degree’s field.

Specific majors and general liberal arts degrees both have their strengths. Some careers require specialized training, like medicine or law. Other careers, like office work or writing, require a variety of sharp universal skills, and this is where liberal arts comes in.

Educators in ancient times designed the liberal arts curriculum to form a “complete” person, educated in philosophy, math, science, language skills, even art and music. Instead of focusing like a laser on a single skill, liberal arts students, ancient and modern, cultivate their learning abilities to the highest level possible, preparing them to learn for life, whether in graduate school or at a job.

Every job requires some math, science, and language skills. Since liberal arts students have learned these already, it’s not too difficult for them to sharpen and adapt them as needed for a job or a further degree. 

Liberal arts degrees often provide workers with much-needed skills for a range of jobs. Mathematicians who major in that field will be teaching or writing textbooks sooner than mathematicians who study the liberal arts, but the liberal arts majors might be the better math teachers, since their training in writing and language may help them explain complex concepts more clearly.

You aren’t alone, young philosophers. People have been skeptical about philosophy since ancient times. At least modern people will laugh at you instead of making you drink hemlock. Just take it in stride, and laugh louder than the scoffers all the way to the bank if your liberal arts and philosophical education are as profitable as Thales’s were.

This is a four-part series written by Penelope Laird, a college intern majoring in Liberal Arts. These are her reflections on the experience she gained between her fall and spring semesters while working for me. -Heidi Scott Giusto, Ph.D.