Liberal Arts: Au Contraire!


Remember when we talked about liberal arts last week? Here’s some more!

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, isn’t just in it for the title. A graduate of Wesleyan himself, he feels deeply about the liberal arts and their ability to turn out well-rounded, creative graduates who make great additions to the workforce. In his article for the Boston Globe, he discusses just that while also giving a nice, deserved kick to the behind of pundits who, having benefited from a college education themselves, say kids these days don’t need to go to college. Personally, as someone who hates the recent push to promote narrow educational paths that may be more immediately useful but not as beneficial in the long run, I found his takedown to be very satisfying.

But Roth isn’t all about takedowns. In fact, in this opinion piece for the New York Times, he discusses the dangers of the tear-it-down mindset that often develops in students of the liberal arts. These students show their intelligence not by embracing interesting ideas, but by picking them apart and exposing their flaws. Is there some value in this? Sure. Does it bring some satisfaction? Yes. But, as Roth says, people who do too much of this:

“…contribute to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning — a culture whose intellectuals and cultural commentators get “liked” by showing that somebody else just can’t be believed. But this cynicism is no achievement.”

So, how is this important to your job search? Because you, the liberal arts educated job seeker, need to a) feel confident in your ability to contribute to a workplace even if your knowledge is broader and less focused than some of your peers (or perhaps BECAUSE your knowledge is broader and less focused than some of your peers), and b) you need to avoid ‘contrarianism’ as much as possible. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t point out flaws for improvement as you see them. But there will always be flaws, and if you’re the person at work who nit-picks every single one of them without ever proposing a solution, you won’t make many friends. Nor are you really helping.

Immersing yourself in something, as Roth suggests, provides a better course of action. If you’re working on a project and you really dive into it, you won’t see flaws as flaws; you’ll see them as opportunities for iterative improvements, things that can be tweaked to make the experience richer or a solution better for the user or client.

So, read up on what Roth has to say and think about how you can really invest successfully your liberal learning  in your work.

(photo by Flickr user Andrew Schwegler, used under a Creative Commons License).

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