Liberal arts save the world

by Leonardo Castaneda

Friends, Aztecs, country-men lend me your ears. I come in defense of the most endangered species: the liberal arts major.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the liberal arts were considered the pinnacle of education. Now, there are two academic paths competing for domi- nance in campuses across the nation. On one side are the practical or career-minded majors—think business administration and accounting; on the other side are science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM majors.

Supporters of practical majors clamor that theirs are the only degrees guaranteeing a life of wealth and comfort. They lure students with tales of post-graduation employment and well-balanced 401(k)s. Meanwhile, politicians and multinational conglomerates fret that we aren’t producing nearly enough engineers and scientists to supply the workforce of the future.

Sure, all those things are important. NASA can’t land a nuclear-powered unmanned science lab roughly the size of a minivan on Mars without a lot of mind-blowingly bright STEM graduates. We also need bankers and accountants to keep the whole global financial system from crumbling around us and sending us back to bartering for Twinkies.

What liberal art gradu- ates bring to the table is an almost intangible understanding of people and the human condition—hence the term “the humanities.” Their education instills in them creativity, idealism and critical thinking—skills sorely lacking in other majors. Without what we now call the liberal arts, human civilization would not have gotten much further than stone tools and medium-rare mammoth steak. Art, social science and literature provided the impetus for all great leaps forward in human history. They also provided a context in which to analyze and interpret these same lessons of history.

Career-minded majors often mock the impracticality of liberal arts. After all, when is the last time you heard of a philosophy major becoming the next Bill Gates? But the world would be a much better place if those practical bankers then the often perfectly legal greed that brought the global economy to its knees wouldn’t be so prevalent and corruptive.

If you don’t think the ideas of liberal arts thinkers can change the world, consider Karl Marx. This philosopher and historian permanently altered the face of global politics with only pen and paper as his tools. And Ayn Rand, philosopher, play-wright and history graduate, has become the darling of the conservative movement in America and presumptive vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s personal idol. Her ideas, expressed primarily through novels and plays, have already begun shaping the future of the nation.

Ideas matter, and no educational path is more adept at producing the thinkers, writers and artists whose ideas will shape the future than liberal arts. Before you turn away from the theater or music degree you want for one of the more “practical” majors, consider this: Businessmen and scientists might keep the world running, but it is a world shaped by the liberal arts graduates.