This is an article from the spring 2018 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
I met a student named Amy who is studying at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, where I serve as dean. Amy was a wrestler in high school, and she enlisted in the United States military after she graduated. Now, Amy studies computer science at the University of Michigan, and she found an internship at a major internet security company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But Amy’s biggest worry about finding a job after graduation isn’t necessarily the salary. (Although I’m sure that matters, too.)
“One of my fears is having a career I don’t have a passion for,” Amy said. “I want to wake up liking what I do every day.”
I’ve been to Mumbai to visit with alumni, and many of their stories are similar to Amy’s. The liberal arts education they received at the University of Michigan gave them what they needed to build a terrific career and a rewarding life.
And while Amy has a very promising future, the world she and other current students face after graduation is changing rapidly. In this world, spending one’s whole career in the same job is increasingly unlikely. Many industries, especially those dealing with technology or commerce, are experiencing wave after wave of intense, sustained disruption.
Overall, liberal arts graduates earn as much as — or more than — many students with degrees from vocationally oriented schools over the course of their career, and four of the top five traits that employers are looking for in recruits right out of school are central to a liberal arts education.
A liberal arts degree offers Amy and students like her the tools to adapt to new conditions. Studying the liberal arts means studying all of the ways that humans try to understand the world, and the curriculum includes classes from across the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Students study a number of different academic fields in classes that encourage critical and interdisciplinary thinking. Doing this means that students can develop the mental apparatus to excel at whatever career they put their minds to pursuing.
And the numbers bear out the idea that the liberal arts give graduates the skills they need to become innovators and leaders. Not surprisingly, a third of all Fortune 500 CEOs hold liberal arts degrees, and 55 percent of world leaders hold degrees in either the humanities or the social sciences.
The liberal arts allow graduates to both define and pursue success by developing a set of core competencies: clear and compelling communication skills, critical thinking, creative problem solving, and the ability to look at an issue from multiple angles. These skills are not confined to a single industry, such as medicine, engineering, technology, politics, entertainment, or law. These are skills that are vital to success in all of those sectors—and in life.
Increasing automation means that college graduates will need the mental flexibility to adapt to shifting economic landscapes and succeed in careers that didn’t even exist when those students came to campus for first-year orientation.
Remember, Amy doesn’t want just any job. She wants a job that means something to her. Liberal arts students like Amy spend a lot of time learning to survive—and thrive in—uncertainty. They have developed the kind of mental flexibility that enables them to adapt as their fields shift and evolve, or to successfully change tracks and embrace new careers. Liberal arts students aren’t just prepared for their first job, they’re prepared for their eighth—or even their eighteenth.
At the end of the day, it’s the student who has to decide what they want. And we want to give them the skills to do that, wherever that journey takes them. It’s Amy who has to decide whether she wakes up liking what she does every day. What I want for her, and for all of our students, is to discover what matters to her and to pursue her choice of career aggressively and fearlessly. And if she decides that she needs to make some kind of change in the future, I want her to have the confidence that she can translate the skills that she has learned into some new arena.
This piece appeared on November 18, 2017, in the Economic Times of India.