Probing Question: Is a liberal arts education relevant in today's economy?

In the 2012 movie "Liberal Arts," one character asks another "So, what was your major?" The other replies, "I was English, with a minor in history, just to make sure I was fully unemployable."

While the joke gets a laugh, it also points to a serious societal debate: Is a liberal arts education still relevant in today's economy?

Absolutely yes, says Steven Sherrill, associate professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona.

When we talk about education, he notes, we mean more than just the specific degree conferred or something that can be quantified by a cost-benefit analysis of your expected earning potential.

"The world has always needed people who aren't guided solely by the pragmatic or the profitable," says Sherrill. "The impulse to create and the drive to understand 'the big picture' are things that mark us as human. We make for the sake of making, and to share what we have made. Nurturing this creative impulse is the thing I value above all as an educator, and I'm proud that Penn State has been recognized for valuing it as well."

Explains Sherrill, our concept of liberal arts education has roots in ancient Greece. The Greeks believed that studying grammar, rhetoric and logic gave free citizens the intellectual and moral preparation they needed to participate in a democracy. Today a liberal arts curriculum includes the study of languages, literature, philosophy and history, as well as science and mathematics.

The hallmark of a liberal arts education -- as opposed to specialized vocational or professional training -- is the emphasis on learning as a means to deepen human understanding, Sherrill notes. But, he acknowledges, it's understandable that the struggling economy and rising cost of college have given rise to the idea that pursuing liberal arts is an impractical waste of money.

Yet even from a strictly economic perspective, we shouldn't be so quick to pooh-pooh such degrees as philosophy, literature or history, Sherrill believes.

While it's tempting to think that majoring in a specialized subject is "money in the bank," it may be a shortsighted solution. "Technology and the economy are rapidly changing," he says. "Adaptability and flexibility are more than important; they are necessary. Students in the arts and humanities learn how to explore and discover and innovate, not just how to perform specialized tasks."

The pendulum of public opinion might be swinging back toward the "real world" value of a liberal arts education. Recent studies suggest that employers are starting to recognize the value of workers with broader sets of skills. Many have noted that the complex global challenges of the 21st century will require leaders who are flexible thinkers and persuasive multilingual communicators, with knowledge of history and well-developed intercultural competencies. An education in the liberal arts and sciences, says Sherrill, is an excellent foundation in this context.

Even countries known for their emphasis on science and technology training, such as China and India, are now weighing the benefits of having more educated generalists in the workforce, alongside more narrowly trained experts.

Sherrill, an accomplished novelist and painter (and amateur ukelelist, he might add) is quick to note that no matter what path students ultimately pursue, taking some creative arts classes during college might teach them some important things. "What it takes to make progress in the arts," he explains, "is diligence, perseverance and discipline. The arts require a receptiveness and openness in the way one sees the world and thinks about things. These are key traits for innovators and leaders in any field."

Ultimately, Sherrill maintains, the most important thing to teach students may be "the ability to be comfortable pursuing new ideas despite doubt and uncertainty, a willingness to follow your imagination, to continue onward to what may or may not be a dead end, to risk failure in the pursuit of something you believe in."

"Some of my students are like I was all those years ago. Afraid, confused, unaware of their own potential. And every semester, I try to nudge them along, reminding them that college can prepare them for not only a livelihood but also for a meaningful life."

"I came from a narrowly defined environment," reflects Sherrill. "I dropped out of high school and wasted many years. Then I took a creative writing class. Now I'm an associate professor of English and integrative arts, with three novels, a book of poems, scads of paintings, musical projects and more underway. I got to this point because I started trusting my imagination. And for that, I thank my liberal arts education."

Steven Sherrill is associate professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona and can be reached at kss15@psu.edu.

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Last Updated January 22, 2014