It’s not a waste of a degree.
As long as I have been alive (more than four decades), the knock on liberal arts majors has been in force. I heard it as a student. I hear it as a professor and academic administrator. “It’s great that you love history (or English or philosophy), but what are you going to DO with that?” The answer, based on the results of a study published in the Wall Street Journal, may surprise you. It turns that out that while students who major in a wide variety of professional fields out-earn their liberal arts peers at the outset, the liberal arts majors tend to pull ahead in later years.
How can this be? The liberal arts major doesn’t learn a market-driven skill such as nursing or business management. On what basis would they earn more money at any point in their careers? There are a variety of answers available, but I would like to focus on one in particular. By doing so, I think I can also make a case, not only for liberal arts majors, but also for strengthening (rather than cutting or eliminating) the liberal arts core.
The great management theorist Peter Drucker addressed the matter insightfully in his 1957 book Landmarks of Tomorrow (emphasis mine):
Whatever does not add to the capacity for sustained growth of personality or contribution is impractical – and may indeed be deleterious. That this or that subject adds to a man’s ability to get a job, or to do well on his first job, is not irrelevant. But as a measure of the effectiveness of a long-term advanced investment it may be the most impractical yardstick, may indeed cost heavily in terms of the really practical results. The practical test of education in educated society is whether it prepares for the demands of the world fifteen years after graduation. Since we live in an age of innovation, a practical education must prepare a man for work that does not yet exist and cannot yet be clearly defined. To be able to do this a man must have learned to learn. He must be conscious of how much there is still to learn. He must acquire basic tools of analysis, of expression, of understanding. Above all he must have the desire for self-development.
The person who has mastered a particular market-driven skill of today is in a good position to profit in the short term, but given that we live in a highly dynamic society, the better long term investment is an education that equips the person to learn for the rest of his life. The liberal arts, if taught well and approached with desire by the student, have the ability to unlock almost any subject the student wishes to learn for years to come. If you understand how to think, how to draw lessons from past experience, how to write and speak, how to calculate, and how to put information through the kinds of tests which yield knowledge, then you have the tools you need.