Apodaca: Liberal arts education has merit

Many readers have told me that they connected with my last column, in which I discussed the growing recognition that we've become too infatuated with "elite" colleges and that we shouldn't undervalue the many other excellent institutions with lesser pedigrees. I also touched on the mounting concern over increasing college costs and student loan debt.

This week, I continue the examination of higher education by addressing another modern fixation: the widespread belief that only majors in engineering, computer science or other technology-related fields will save our kids from spending their underemployed postgraduate years lining our couches with Doritos debris.

It's true that data demonstrate that certain majors hold superior job prospects. A recent report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, for instance, found that last year's engineering graduates had the highest starting salaries, followed by business majors. In a separate survey, the NACE discovered that graduates in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — underestimated the going rate for beginning positions in their fields.

A survey of employers by consulting firm CareerBuilder shows the trend continuing this year, with demand strongest for graduates with business and technical skills.

There's nothing wrong with paying attention to employment patterns and counseling our children to make fully informed and well-researched decisions about their education. Yet some observers caution against overreacting or misguidedly responding to hiring trends when it comes to college choices.

First, keep in mind the fundamental tenet of business: It's cyclical. Even given the projections by tons of very smart people about the long-term shifting of our economy to a technology- and information-driven model, we'll still likely see ups and downs within various technology-based sectors. Just ask anyone old enough to have lived through past aerospace downturns. Today's boom can quickly turn to bust, and sometimes even genius engineers find themselves having to retool their careers.

Perhaps a greater risk, some argue, lies in our society's recent tendency to denigrate liberal-arts degrees as worthless academic indulgence.

I'm reminded of the reaction I received three years ago from someone I had just met. I mentioned that my son was about to graduate with a double major in political science and history. The new acquaintance made a sound something like "pfffft," followed by a mocking "Good luck with that."

Really? Since when has a dual degree from UCLA warranted a "pfffft"? His meaning, of course, was clear: A liberal-arts degree these days is useless in the real world.

But is it?

Some observers have begun pushing against this notion, mostly notably CNN host Fareed Zakaria in his provocative book "In Defense of a Liberal Education."

Zakaria offers a spirited argument that a liberal arts education provides a strong foundation for any profession — even a technical one — by teaching students to write, think deeply, debate and analyze. He takes to task the notion that we're producing too many liberal arts degrees by noting that business and health care-related majors are the two most popular now.

What's more, he points out, liberal arts majors can still obtain the technical skills required for various professions while focusing on the broad-based learning that will help make them attractive and upwardly mobile workers throughout their careers.

His contention calls to mind the Albert Einstein quote, "The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think."

Still, many parents are rightly concerned that if their children don't obtain degrees in fields that potentially offer a faster payoff, they'll be saddled with heavy debt loads and uncertain job prospects for years. Is it reasonable or realistic to ask families to consider a $50,000-a-year education — the cost of some colleges these days — that promises graduates will be well-rounded deep thinkers who nonetheless lack any obvious career trajectory?

Consider another recent CareerBuilder survey forecasting improved job prospects and higher starting salaries for new college graduates. Not surprisingly, the most in-demand graduates are in computer, engineering and health-related fields.

But there were other interesting findings in the study. When asked how new graduates fell short, employers responded most frequently that they lacked real-world learning and that they needed a better blend of technical skills and soft skills from liberal arts.

And when the employers were asked what they wanted to see more of in recent graduates, the most highly valued qualities named were interpersonal, problem-solving and oral communication skills. Computer and technical skills were not as highly prized.

The knowledge vs. skills debate will likely tear at some of us for the foreseeable future as compelling arguments are raised on both sides and a new round of incoming college students ponders the future. Perhaps the discussion will ultimately lead to the not-so-groundbreaking conclusion that the best education offers a combination of both.

My younger son, by the way, is a business major, which means his schedule is loaded with practical courses in subjects such as accounting, statistics and management. He recently told me he's considering a minor in classics because he loves the subject, it would add depth to his education and would be a distinctive item on his resumé. It seemed to him to be a very sensible choice. Go figure.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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