Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Liberal Arts and Student Butts

Kitchen-table discussions of college majors are being superseded by political stump speeches.

capcashGOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio says America needs more welders, not more philosophers.

North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory says higher education funding should be based on how many student butts can be placed in good-paying jobs, not classroom seats.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin wants to end state subsidies for students majoring in French literature.

The implication is that liberal arts students are on a collision course with career failure. College and universities apparently aren’t places where you learn to think. They are places where you think about how to get a job.

Trashing liberal arts is hardly new and these kinds of statements are barely artful enough to merit a response. But here’s one anyway.

The underlying premise – that some college majors are gratuitous wastes of time – is flawed. People with liberal arts majors are just as likely to have successful careers as anyone else. They may be more likely to have satisfying ones.

French literature majors have gone on to be distinguished chefs, highly regarded film producers, respected politicians, popular playwrights and well known actors. Kate Beckinsale, the famous actress and model, majored in French literature.

People with liberal arts degrees have had a huge impact on business. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, graduated with a degree in communications. Michael Eisner, CEO at Disney, holds a degree in English literature. Carly Florina, the former HP CEO and GOP presidential aspirant, took her degree in medieval history. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, majored in philosophy. John Mackey, Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, studied philosophy and religion.

Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba, studied English, dropped out of college and tried without success to get menial jobs at places like KFC. He finally landed a job teaching English, which he turned into a small translation business augmented by peddling flowers, books and clothes. By 2014, Ma took his “peddling” company public with a staggering $25 billion IPO.

Tech Companies and liberal artsIt’s true that a liberal arts degree isn’t by itself what made these people successful. What made them successful was finding what they loved and transforming it into a career, a business or a calling. Some got rich; others just enjoyed a rich life. Either way, these people aren’t failures or leeches on the public arse.

Many technology company executives actively recruit liberal arts majors to inject creativity and critical thinking into product design and company decision-making. Engineers look for elegant technical solutions. Liberal arts majors bring a human perspective, such as why would anyone want a product and how would they use it.

Instead of forcing people into majors and careers they hate, college is a place where people should search for what works best for them. Students are more likely to learn about a subject that makes them passionate.

The greatest lesson to learn in college is how much you don’t know, or will ever know. You can learn that lesson in a science lab, an engineering school or a history class.

The reason colleges have so many majors is because people have so many interests. Those interests shouldn’t be shunted aside just for the sake of landing a “good job” after graduation. Some careers are slow starters, but turn out to be hugely rewarding.

To be sure, there are students who trundle off to college with little reason to be there. Some, especially those who like to make things, might do better in technical school. We do need good welders, who can make a lot of money and have their choice of where to live and work. There is nothing wrong with technical training in a field you love, which ultimately can open doors, such as the door to owning your own business.

The notion that some majors are better than others is only true in the eye of beholder. If you think young people are daft for majoring in English literature, as my father did of me, so be it. But don’t be surprised if they turn that education into something valuable and rich.

What you major in reflects how you learn, not just what you learn. One of my best college friends majored in history and became a successful lawyer. Another majored in chemistry and became a sports medicine doctor. A third took a degree in education, worked abroad and emerged as a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist. A fourth studied social sciences and built a successful business that sells the Italian coffee machines used by coffee shops. Hard to call any of those careers failures.


Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin

By the way, Rubio, who initially went to college on a football scholarship, earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida in – political science. McCrory graduated with a double major in – political science and education. Bevin’s undergraduate degree was in – East Asian Studies. Enough said.


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