It is common to hear today, in the era of big data and STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — that liberal arts degrees are, well, relatively worthless. What is someone with a degree in English literature going to do with it, besides teach?
The question isn’t new. A decade ago, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics magazine published an article titled “What Can I Do With My Liberal Arts Degree?” which starts with this: “What are you going to do with a degree in that? Do you want to be a teacher?”
Since then, private and public pushes to increase STEM education have given rise to new concerns about the value of a liberal arts education — as well as arguments about why it is incredibly valuable, even to people going into STEM fields. A new book by George Anders titled “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education,” says:
Curiosity, creativity, and empathy aren’t unruly traits that must be reined in to ensure success. Just the opposite. The human touch has never been more essential in the workplace than it is today. You don’t have to mask your true identity to get paid for your strengths. You don’t need to apologize for the supposedly impractical classes you took in college or the so-called soft skills you have acquired. The job market is quietly creating thousands of openings a week for people who can bring a humanist’s grace to our rapidly evolving high-tech future.
And it makes this point:
The more we automate the routine stuff, the more we create a constant low-level hum of digital connectivity, the more we get tangled up in the vastness and blind spots of big data, the more essential it is to bring human judgment into the junctions of our digital lives.
Yet fewer students are studying the liberal arts than they did a few decades ago. A recent study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, through its Humanities Indicators project, found that the number of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities that were earned in 2015, the last year for which there is data, was down nearly 10 percent from three years earlier.