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Middle class parents are proud, tearful and quietly dealing with post empty-nest stress. Come the weekend, and the little prodigy returns with a beaming face, a backpack crammed with laundry and an announcement to make.
Over a generically emblematic breakfast, said prodigy breaks the news that after hours of mental deliberation, he/she has decided to major in...(insert liberal arts major here).
The parents cry foul, they are dejected; the prodigy, who scored top marks on the math component of the ACT instead of signing up for four years of trigonometry and equations, is chasing after what they see as a humanities mirage. Why?
The above parable is not just exclusive to the families of math and chemistry geniuses, and contrary to the popular misconception, it's not always your parents' fault (seriously, sometimes it's really yours).
The universal stereotype of the English graduates, who poured over academia only to move on to being academics themselves, has long been propagated by the film industry, often even by educators and advisors and has entrenched itself in the collective consciousness.
Naturally, societal norms that rigidly define the parameters of professional and even personal success are hardly any help themselves.
A turbulent economy and the promise of a lucrative, clear-cut career path with ample room for promotion are some of the main factors luring students towards majors such as Actuarial Science. This has become quite a hit amongst many AUC students.
According to the Duke University Mathematics Department website, the average salary earned by a Mathematics degree holder exceeds that of an English major by 37.7 percent; Economics graduates come in at a close second with 33.5 percent.
The financial motive is understandable - college tuitions have over the years continued to rise and immense strain is put on families as they scramble to afford their children a decent education. And with a globally weakened economy, it is only wise to try and be as pragmatic as possible.
To encourage students with passions for more technical and scientific specialties to make a complete interest detour would be fanciful, if not outright ludicrous.
A more realistic and effective solution would be to identify the gaps in a single-tracked educational route and then meet those shortcomings.
A major selling point of a liberal arts degree is the skills obtained by graduates. This counters the claim that liberal arts are more theory-oriented, and that those who can't do, think. It is precisely because liberal arts students are constantly urged to think, that their problem-solving skills are quite sharp says Martha Reineke, author of Sacrificed Lives: Kristeva on Women and Violence.
Relying on stock precedents for a model of how to do things can be a sure-fire way of getting a good job done, but to assess the soundness of that model, you need a prerequisite, and that's thinking.
Sister skills include the much-abhorred essay writing and comprehensive, critical reading, both of which are fundamental for efficient communication. The correlation between liberal arts and actual jobs is not the stuff of legends; examples include Former CEO of Mattel, Inc. Jill E. Barad who graduated with a degree in English and Psychology from Queen's College and the CEO of Forbes, Inc. and one-time U.S. presidential candidate Steve Forbes*, the Princeton alum majored in American History.
Silicon Valley is quite surprisingly yet another place where the value of a liberal arts degree can be observed live and in action. Director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, Vivek Wadhwa says that the place where the Mark Zuckerbergs toil to bring us the latest and greatest of delightfully geeky* inventions lacks engineers and computer science graduates, with only about 37% of employees holding such degrees.
The rest come from diverse educational backgrounds, such as health care, humanities and arts, says Wadhwa.
In his article, ‘Rival Views, Both Right', Stephen Trachtenberg writes that while Gates advocated ‘charting the effectiveness of particular majors with regional job creation' , Jobs proclaimed ‘It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough -- it's technology married with liberal arts'.
Outwardly this is an odd pairing, yes, but a closer look shows that the obvious aestheticism written all over Apple products is lacking from other companies.
When mixed with art, gadgets are no longer cold mediums that become dispensable as soon as their specifications are marginally outdone; they become collectors' items. It's entrepreneurship Willy Wonka style.
So, to drive the point home, while degrees in medicine, engineering and the like are crucial for the development and overall functioning of any given society, the value of a liberal arts education points toward the need to make it compulsory as opposed to complementary.
The kind of learning approach that is integral to us today is one that allows for "teaching arithmetic by watching the heavens and counting the stars," says Trachtenberg.
*The term ‘geeky' is not used deprecatingly. In fact, the author is a geek herself.*