Benson: College is about more than job skills

Michael T. Benson

Psychology, sociology, history, political science, economics and philosophy — some maintain that these and other “liberal arts” subjects may result in less than abundant job prospects for those who chose these areas of study.

However, this list also represents, respectively, the undergraduate fields of study of the following individuals: Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase; Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States; Samuel Palmisano, former CEO of IBM; Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state; John Watson, CEO of Chevron; and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

It certainly helped that Dimon (Harvard MBA) and Watson (University of Chicago MBA), along with Fiorina (University of Maryland MBA and MIT master’s in management), pursued postgraduate degrees in business to prepare for their respective careers. And this is becoming more and more common for those who chose a liberal arts pathway but desire a modicum of business acumen.

Fifteen years after completing my doctorate in Middle Eastern history, I headed to Notre Dame to take courses I avoided as an undergraduate: statistics, accounting, finance, economics and marketing. This business training helped give me the tools to better lead and manage the multi-million dollar enterprises that public universities have become.

To be sure, difficult economic times require job and skill training that can result in immediate employment. Nonetheless, to argue that students enrolled in more traditional liberal arts programs have nothing to offer in terms of applicable job skills for the real world reveals an alarming ignorance of the irreplaceable value of a liberal education. Back in 2010, Steve Jobs wistfully mused: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

At Eastern Kentucky University, we have outlined a specific way liberal arts graduates can buttress job prospects for those who choose to study history as undergraduates.

History majors at EKU can now choose from 23 career paths designed to meld a broad liberal arts background with specific skill sets via a second major or minor in such fields as broadcasting and electronic media, journalism, public relations, advertising, paralegal sciences, economics, geography, communication studies, management, and globalization and international affairs.

We are the first in Kentucky to create such a path for our history students but hardly the first in the U.S. to do so. One stellar program is at Wake Forest University and illustrates that the benefit of a liberal arts education can go both ways.

Wake Forest’s Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship program, housed in the School of Business, offers an interdisciplinary minor in Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise. The program offers core courses and electives in the various liberal arts divisions and the concept of the minor is simple: coupled with any major within the college or the school of Business, it is designed to “enable students to enhance their skills in innovative, creative and entrepreneurial thought and action as applied to their specific discipline or career area of interest.”

The core mission as a university was best summarized by the architect of the Great Books program at the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins: “The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.”

Skill sets, while necessary and vital to one’s success, do not guarantee an appreciation for what really enriches one’s existence. This transformative power comes from the liberal arts and humanities.

Michael T. Benson is president and professor of government of Eastern Kentucky University. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.