When American universities were founded in the Colonial days, they didn't have majors. They were designed for a small slice of the population, namely statesmen, lawyers and clergy who studied a subject a day, from morning into the early evening. The prevailing teaching method was recitation and debate.
Higher education was never intended in those days to be a route into the job market. But that is exactly what it has become, especially over the last four decades as more college-going students choose majors designed to prepare them for a job, such as health care, communications and the most popular undergraduate major, business. The proportion of undergraduates in the liberal arts has fallen by almost 50 percent since 1970. Even on elite campuses, some of the most popular majors are the newest ones that are riding the wave of job market trends. At Yale University, one of the hottest majors this year is statistics/data science.
The flight away from the liberal arts has left English, history and philosophy departments, among others in the humanities, searching for a purpose. Small colleges that offer nothing but such majors are fighting for survival as they try to justify their existence and large price tag. The well-worn arguments in favor of the liberal arts -that they teach you how to problem solve, communicate effectively and train you for jobs not yet imagined - has largely failed to win over students and their parents these days.
Even Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has advocated for the humanities, telling technology leaders at a conference earlier this year that "free thinking" liberal arts majors will be needed as automation replaces computer programmers and engineers. "What looks like a great job graduating from college today may be not be a great job graduating from college five or 10 years from now," Cuban said.
The job market is certainly in a state of flux. Entire careers are expanding and contracting at an alarming rate. Law, accounting, even medicine are no longer the steady career paths they once were. So there is no such thing as a "safe major," said George Anders, a business journalist and author of a new book, "You Can Do Anything," about the usefulness of the liberal arts.
As Anders points out in the book, about 10 million jobs have been added to the U.S. economy since 2012, but only 6 percent were in areas related to software, computers and information technology. "That means there are a lot more jobs out there for graduates in non-tech fields than we are led to believe," Anders told me.
The book is a quick read for students and their anxious parents who fear choosing a humanities major means they'll end up working as a Starbucks barista after graduation. He has plenty of examples, useful data and lengthy stories of recent graduates who have found success with liberal arts degrees. But rather than just lay out the same tired arguments for the liberal arts, Anders outlines in detail fast-growing fields in which skills from the liberal arts are required, such as project management, market research and fund-raising.
"Those jobs require people who can think on their feet, improvise, work through ambiguity, write clearly, speak persuasively and connect with other people," Anders said. "A liberal arts education tends to be a great place to get prepared for a career in what I call the empathy sector or the rapport economy."
Too many students think their major equals a specific career. They only look for jobs with certain titles or in particular sectors. The one advantage of a liberal arts degree, Anders said, is that it doesn't train students for a clear-cut job, so searching for employment can be as broad as graduates want it to be.
"The biggest surprise for me is how far the liberal arts skill set could travel," Anders said. Classics majors are popular among Wall Street banks, he said, because of their ability to closely read texts. Anthropology majors are hot hires for technology companies expanding their user-research efforts.
In the book, Anders tells the story of Andy Anderegg, who had just finished her master's in fine arts from the University of Kansas when she saw a job ad for in-house writers at Groupon. She applied and passed the writing test. Within months, her whimsical writing caught the attention of her bosses and she was soon training new writers.
Over the next few years, she earned several promotions and pay raises. She left Groupon a few years later as managing editor and set herself up as a consultant to other digital media companies, allowing her to write short stories on the side.
But even Anders admits that not every liberal arts major is an instant success and not everyone is cut out to be a liberal arts major, which requires students to navigate the job market in a different way than, say, a business major. "You probably won't find your first job by waiting for big companies to come to campus," he said.
Still, for those who do pick the liberal arts, the Anders book makes clear that the skills and competencies they learn not only help students navigate the ambiguity of the modern economy. They also won't consign graduates to a life sentence of low-paying, dead-end jobs, as the popular perception would have students and parents believe. And if parents still aren't convinced, then there is always the option of pairing a "practical degree" with a minor or second major in a liberal arts field.