The wide and varied applications of a “useless” degree
by: Aleigha Page
UNC prides itself for being a university offering a wide array of subjects and classes. Students are encouraged to explore topics of interest, take challenging courses that push, or simply to learn something new. The university believes that a diverse education prepares its students to be critical thinkers and knowledgeable world citizens. Liberal arts degrees have long been a tradition in the university, and knowledge for knowledge’s sake is the ideology that has driven how colleges and universities construct their course requirements.
The liberal arts have their value in the world: they teach students to think, write, communicate, and how to learn. In short, the discipline instills knowledge, producing intelligent and accomplished members of society. Humanities degrees teach students what it means to be a human by exploring subjects such as anthropology, history, sociology, government, politics, and psychology. By taking these courses, students better understand the human condition, and are better equipped to improve humanity. Liberal arts degrees construct malleable minds, and those minds are capable of evolving throughout a career. However, knowing information does not pay bills or put food on tables. The recent economy has not favored liberal arts seekers.
The world has changed drastically in the 21st century, and the value of a liberal arts degree is in question. Technology has taken the world by force and is in constant evolution. Demand for people with a serious knowledge of computers, engineering, biology, and chemistry is sharply on the rise. Degrees in the sciences, business, or medicine are seen as being more practical and useful. Jones, a graduate student at NC State, graduated in 2012 with a degree in Microbiology. “I chose this major because it was practical, opened many doors, and is a growing field”. Jones is confident that his undergraduate degree has prepared him well for entering the work force, and will always be valued. He is currently working towards a Master’s in Microbial Biotechnology and his MBA. By pairing science with business, Jones believes that he will be afforded a wide selection of career paths and opportunities.
Chancellor Holden Thorp has worked hard to create a culture of research and innovation on UNC’s campus. As a scientist and academic, Thorp believes that scientific innovation is the key to students’ success in the future. He has established several research projects, primarily in the scientific departments, which he claims will prepare students to be sources of social change. An aspect of UNC’s mission statement is to “serve a center for research, scholarship, and creativity and to teach a diverse community of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to become the next generation of leaders”. UNC wants its students to be educated, and learn to research, so they may be movers and shakers in the world. Without research skills, it is impossible to find practical sources of change in the world.
The critique against vocational training in a technical field is that training students for one track is a disservice because that track may become irrelevant or dated at some point in time due to the quick turnover in the tech world. Students are not taught to be thinkers or analysts, but simply workers, defeating the purpose of the university.
The question lingering in the minds of all liberal arts degree seeking students is “what will I do with this degree?” When sharing their major with a new acquaintance, students face this question. As a fellow liberal arts seeker, I sympathize with everyone who has been fired this question. Professors tell us that employers want liberal arts degrees in their offices because they know we can think critically and analytically, write well, and are effective at communicating ideas. Liberal arts majors are often creative and can think “outside of the box”, offering innovative contributions to their employers. The current state of the economy is a grim reality that students must consider as majors are selected.
The answer to this dilemma is not to eliminate the liberal arts, but rather, to create a curriculum which integrates the classic disciplines and applicable uses of that knowledge. Liberal arts degrees are not irrelevant, but students need to learn how they can apply their hours of studying and countless papers to the professional world. For example, imagine an art museum in construction. The museum building will be brand new, and many disciplines will be required. To begin, a budget must be established. A group of accountants, fundraisers, and other business people will convene to determine this budget. Architects and engineers will be hired to design the building and surrounding space; and construction contractors and workers will be brought on. Interior designers will create a pleasant ambiance inside the walls, and artists will fill the walls. The business team will remain and continue to maintain the budget by setting entrance prices, and how many employees the museum can afford. Janitors, curators, ticket collectors, guides, and guards will keep the museum afloat. This fictional museum is a microcosm for what the world needs: professionals from many backgrounds who are able to work together. Those with a liberal arts degree, such as art, a foreign language, or design, can apply their skills in ways that are meaningful. Students should not only be taught the core information of their courses, but how the information or skill can be applied in a professional setting.
One of the most beneficial courses I have taken at UNC was an English class and we applied for mock SURF grants and other programs. We learned how to write cover letters and resumes, and how to conduct an interview. These are skills that will be of value to us for our entire lives, whether applying for grants, graduate programs, jobs, or loans. We must know how to show the world our competence. A growing trend among professionals is to have a personal website showcasing our projects and achievements. A course that could teach liberal arts students how to construct one of these sites could prove to be invaluable.
The answer to liberal arts vs. training debate is not to chop one or the other, but to meld the two into a single track. Internships and volunteer positions offer students “real world” experience with which they can use their academic skills. Obtaining lucrative internships is the key to professional success. A student may have any major, and if they can find internships related to that major, their job opportunities increase significantly. The Communication Studies department of UNC offers stipends and scholarships so their students may take unpaid internships during the summer. The University Career Services also offers stipends and scholarships, some that are solely for arts related internships. Endowments such as these are essential for the arts majors. Students should be encouraged to accept these positions, paid or not, and then taught how to market the professional skills. UNC has some programs in place, and the majority of students do intern, but the programs can be taken to the next level by teaching students how to integrate their classroom knowledge with professional skills.