Liberal arts students are “generalists in a specialized world,” and as a result, they bring many analogies to bear on the problems that they will face on a daily basis in the world of work. And those analogies come from what they actually study, from Homer to field science to statistical analysis to metaphysics.

Back in June, in a column I wrote on summer reading, one of my concerns was the practicality of a liberal education and the future of the students that we teach at Wyoming Catholic College. To be clear, we never say that we are training anyone for a job; we say boldly that we are educating the whole person, not just the worker. We emphasize the difference between what the Greeks called the banausic (mechanical, utilitarian) arts and the liberal arts suited to free men and women. The crisis of Western civilization, especially the loss of its center in Christian culture, will never be addressed by mere specialization for entry into the workplace or by a narrow expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the so-called STEM education advocated by many.

On the other hand, education is expensive—indeed, along with a house, one of the most expensive things that most people will ever buy. At present, a whole generation anticipates decades of student loan debt; what is worse, studies are showing that the actual payoff for college education in terms of lifetime earnings is not what it used to be. What our students face after college is one of my major concerns. We do all we can to keep costs down, and we put a cap on student debt for the four years (more about that at another time). My interest this summer was to read what others say about liberal arts graduates and how they fare out in the marketplace.

The first book I read was by Randall Stross, A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Graduates Make Great Employees. I imagined that Dr. Stross would find many instances of seemingly impractical knowledge that turned out to be more helpful than a specialized approach, but I was disappointed. Although it is a pleasantly readable book, it is really a history of Stanford University, Dr. Stross’s alma mater, and the upshot of the argument is that majors in Humanities can still get a job, especially in the tech sector, if they have good communication skills and know the right networks of people. Despite his research, it all feels thin. His scrupulously PC book exhorts employers to give Humanities graduates of the prestigious Stanford (which costs in the neighborhood of $70,000 a year) a try. Not once does Dr. Stross address the fact that Humanities at Stanford was the center of some of the worst changes in American universities, starting in 1987, when Jesse Jackson led students in chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has gotta go”—and won the day. How about liberal arts programs that do not renounce their own origins? I’d rather know why studying Agamemnon in the Iliad, for example, or Creon in Antigone, or Camillus in Livy’s History might yield a whole range of insights into the problems of leadership.

Far better than Dr. Stross’s is a fascinating book by David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, which I’ve mentioned before and recommended to my colleagues here at WCC. Mr. Epstein does not focus on the liberal arts per se, but he shows with extensive research that those who do not specialize too early, those who have many experiences, try many things, and draw upon analogies from many fields, have a much better chance of solving problems and achieving what he calls “match quality,” the fitness of the person to the job to be done. Mr. Epstein uses Vincent van Gogh as a prime example, but he also has many others, and I’ll simply refer you to the book.

A number of experiences, some of them failures, often go into finding the right thing, which is rarely predictable in advance. In his closing chapter, Mr. Epstein shows that drawing upon things outside conventional wisdom can result in the greatest successes. For example, who would think of putting together “hip-hop, a Broadway musical, and American historical biography”? Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton. Arturo Casadevall, the renowned microbiologist and immunologist at Johns Hopkins, continually urges the scientific community to broaden its perspectives, which Dr. Casadevall himself has done. As Mr. Epstein writes, “A single conversation with him is liable to include Anna Karenina, the Federalist Papers, the fact that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebniz were both philosophers as well as scientists, why the Roman empire wasn’t more innovative, and a point about mentoring in the form of a description of the character Mentor from Homer’s Odyssey.”

That’s exactly the kind of range our students have. They are “generalists in a specialized world,” and as a result, they will bring many analogies to bear on the problems that they will face on a daily basis in the world of work. And those analogies come from what they actually study, from Homer to field science to statistical analysis to metaphysics—not to mention all of their outdoor experience. It’s not just that they can get a job “anyway,” despite having done something “impractical.” I can’t emphasize this enough. They bring to bear the analogies from literature, art, music, history, science, theology, and philosophy; they have spent many hours teasing out the subtleties of arguments in seminar; and they bear within them the details of four years of adventures in the Mountain West. They have an “outsider knowledge” that they can bring to all sorts of questions, whereas too much information virtually shuts off the problem-solving ability of those limited to the expectations of a specialized field.

In other words, forget Stanford. Give WCC graduates a chance.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Painting and Sculpture Among the Seven Liberal Arts” by Johann König (1586-1642), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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