• Rich Barlow

    Senior Writer

    Photo: Headshot of Rich Barlow, an older white man with dark grey hair and wearing a grey shirt and grey-blue blazer, smiles and poses in front of a dark grey backdrop.

    Rich Barlow is a senior writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. Perhaps the only native of Trenton, N.J., who will volunteer his birthplace without police interrogation, he graduated from Dartmouth College, spent 20 years as a small-town newspaper reporter, and is a former Boston Globe religion columnist, book reviewer, and occasional op-ed contributor. Profile

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There are 8 comments on Liberal Arts vs. Career Majors: What’s an Education For?

  1. My first job after graduating with a degree in Ancient Greek was working for a large life insurance company in Beverly Hills. I began as a temp, but within a month was offered a permanent position working in the executive offices as an investment account troubleshooter. Why? I got through advanced calculus as an undergrad and loved the abstract, symbolic nature of math. In a way, it wasn’t so different from the highly conceptual nature of studying a dead language (albeit the foundation of the Western world), and learning about the trials and tribulations of Socrates, Plato, and Alexander certainly prepared me for the real world. I would never have had it any other way, and neither would that life insurance company!

  2. I don’t agree with Mr. Gates. The more you target education to particular jobs, the less prepared the graduate will be. Why? Because we cannot know exactly what jobs will exist in the future. This is why a liberal education is more effective because it can provide an understanding of your fellow human beings, how to apply critical thinking to decision making, and the ability to think creatively.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Glenn – college should be a place of personal growth and exploration, not some factory to churn out degrees to improve our GDP. My acting classes and hot yoga training have been invaluable to my life, especially in these stressful times when trying to find a job in this kind of market.

  4. One person commenting above notes that, as the structural demands of the economy are constantly in flux, the liberal arts degree presents the greatest degree of flexibility on one’s job options upon graduation. I disagree. A liberal arts degree, absent any other degree, prepares one for work as a customer service representative, telemarketer, sales representative, or corporate gopher. Yes, these entry-level positions may present opportunities that will allow the liberal arts major to catch up to his or her non-liberal arts peers years later, in terms of annual salary parity, but that’s after years of not being able to pay off school loans that are constantly building interest at seemingly exponential rates, years of not being able to save for a house, and years of not being able to make any solid investments. It’s a recipe for ruin. What’s more is that someone that wisely chose to pursue a degree in the STEM majors (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) could just have easily secured those entry level jobs plus the entry level jobs available in his or her specific major. More than likely, though, such person will pursue a STEM career, which will begin to pay a high wage right out of college, allowing them to pay off school loans before the interest builds the total amount due to a multiple of what was originally owed, thereby enabling him or her to save for a house, and make some reasonable investments or build a retirement account for the future. So, by the time the liberal arts major finally catches up to the STEM major’s yearly earnings, the STEM major is comfortably living in a house with a white picket fence saving for retirement, while the liberal arts major, while earning the same, is still struggling to pay off school loans from his or her apartment and with his or her resulting bad credit. Beyond the job-right-after-college scenario is the graduate school situation. If both majors go to a graduate school, both will have the same opportunities for positions in neither graduate’s major, but, because of the specialization during undergrad, the STEM major will have additional opportunities in his or her major available to him or her. Indeed, it would seem that the STEM majors always have an advantage over the liberal arts majors, and that is, for the most part, the fact. There are only two situations in which the success of the liberal arts major is greater than that of the STEM major. The first is in the example of one seeking to become a professor of a particular liberal art, and the second is the area of integration with the community and social skills and development. Because of the broader education, the liberal arts major will generally have a much better understanding of the big picture and will be better able to interact with a wide array of personalities and backgrounds. For this second reason, I do think that liberal arts are important to the maturity and development of our children, but I think they are best left as a minor, not a major. I, myself, am a CAS ’98 graduate with a political science degree, and I use what I learned achieving that major every day, but, if I knew then what I know now, I’d have likely pursued a STEM degree with a political science minor, and I feel a bit let down that BU did not provide some sort of major/concentration counseling in my freshman year that could have steered me onto a more productive course of major.

  5. I majored in English in college, then went on to a long career in technology, most of that time in corporate management. And, no, I didn’t get an MBA. Liberal arts students are EXCEPTIONALLY well prepared for a variety of careers; too bad they don’t know it. Even sadder that this debate exists at all (whether the liberal arts are worth studying in “today’s” world).

    Most entry level jobs take six months to learn, less for someone ready and able to learn. Somehow we’ve crafted a whole segment of education–vocational studies–that has managed to decompose and over-complicate the simplest aspects of business (like marketing and supply chain, for example) so that people now believe it takes an ultra-specialized degree even to be considered for a simple job. I read a job ad not long ago requiring certification in salesforce.com, a software product that anyone can figure out in about a week. Next thing we’ll see a B.S. degree in salesforce.com.

    Liberal arts students who’d like to know more about just how job-ready they are can visit http://www.LiberalArtsAdvantage.com.

  6. After each degree I have enjoyed writing a book or two; all in the field of social change And I have Three masters and 7 books. Three books were published traditionally and three are self published And the latest is a memoir about my childhood in West Africa, and going away to school in England
    and Switzerland. If I had not learned about critical thinking in college I doubt all these situations would have presented themselves to me

  7. I agree with Gates and the professors. Most employers value job experience over a specific college major however college is not just about personal growth and exploration. For alot of working class folks, college IS about being able to leverage your education into a JOB and paycheck in order to improve or maintain your standard of living.

  8. One can “do” both. In today’s universities, with their plethora of electives, it is possible to prepare yourself for a job AND get a liberal arts education (hopefully with some music and sports tossed in). But, the government shouldn’t be subsidizing anyone’s education. A loan? OK… but not paying someone’s freight without accountability. And, if the government DOES pay for any part of your education, then they DO have the right to tell you what to study. Just like living at home where you have to follow your parents’ rules. A job is another example: Take their money, do what they say.

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