skip to main content

Panelists Assess Intrinsic Value of a Liberal Arts Education


Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp said liberal arts supporters need to reframe their argument.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

An April 28 Fordham symposium sponsored by the Center for Ethics Education, “The Value of a Liberal Arts Education and America’s Future,” coincided with a trend that shows liberal arts to be under scrutiny throughout the nation.

Panelists noted that the focus on liberal arts has shifted the spotlight from much larger issues facing higher education, namely the rising cost of a college degree. In times of economic difficulty, the value of an education gets reassessed, said Eva Badowska, Ph.D., associate dean for academic programs at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and chair of Fordham’s Task Force on the Future of Liberal Education.

“If the public agrees about anything it’s about dollars and cents, cost and outcome,” said Badowska, the evening’s moderator. “We need to refocus the debate as to the question of long-term values.”

Celia Fisher, Ph.D., Director of the Center and Task Force member warned of the societal consequences of creating a “false dichotomy in education between marketability versus ethical habits of mind.” She joined Badowska and panelist Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College, in challenging the liberal arts community to become more adept at promoting the transferable skills of liberal arts.

Chopp said that the traditional narrative that the liberal arts create a well-rounded individual is not enough to sell today, and “we need to speak powerfully to the existential needs of the workforce.”

She framed the conversation as it relates to today’s students, the Millennials. She said that while Millennials are confident, engaged, and opinionated—skills that play out well online—their interpersonal skills are often left wanting.

“The students don’t know the basic rules of communication,” she said. “This is one of the great crises in America.”

She said part of the redesign of knowledge must include community and “associative living.” She said such problems could be mitigated by skills learned on residential liberal arts campuses.

Jamienne Studley, acting under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, called the liberal arts crisis a “crucible moment.” She agreed that learning and living together at a liberal arts college presents an invaluable opportunity for the online generation, noting that “even Google has a campus.”

Colorado College President Jill Tiefenthaler, Ph.D. expressed discomfort at focusing on the employment market; trumpeting job outcomes often shifts the focus toward STEM and professional degrees, which the public often perceives as more worthy of investment.

“We need to remind the public that a liberal arts education’s sum total far exceeds a job title,” she said.

The issue by-the-numbers was presented by Richard Vedder, Ph.D., director of the Center for College Affordability and Accountability, and based on the center’s recent study. While an accounting graduate may come out of the gate making $45,300 versus $39,700 for a liberal arts graduate, by midcareer philosophy majors’ incomes exceed accounting majors’ by $3,500.

Likewise, Vedder said the study shows that history majors, leave their organizational management major counterparts “in the dust.”

“Liberal arts majors have a huge advantage leading them to pull ahead a few years after graduation,” he said. “They know how to think better. They are more literate. They can better analyze unique situations and react better. Reading about King Lear, or the American South before the Civil War, subliminally helps them think critically.”

Andrew Delbanco, Ph.D., professor of humanities at Columbia University, said that liberal arts bashing is not a recent phenomena. Quoting Abigail Adams, “education has never been worse than it is now,” Delbanco said the liberal arts have always been in trouble.

But the preservation of a liberal arts education also preserves a society where “young people can decide what they want to become rather than submit to some predetermined position that’s been handed to them.”

“In that sense nothing is more fundamentally American than liberal education.”

The evening represented a culminating event for the work of Fordham’s Task Force on the Future of Liberal Education.


Comments are closed.