The Immeasurable Worth (or Worthlessness) of a Liberal Arts Education

STORY BY Ellen Xie

Published: April 27, 2013

Yesterday, an old family friend came to visit. Her daughter had been accepted to Yale, so they came from California to visit.

It was freshman year all over again, with its limitless potential. She leaned towards Yale, but her parents wanted her to stay close to home, at Stanford. Her entire world hinged on this decision which would mold her character, stretch her knowledge, test her capabilities, but primarily, move her away from home.  

She looked to me for advice: “Should I go to a liberal arts school?”

Wide-eyed, innocent, and idealistic, she nonetheless verbalized the same question that has monopolized my thoughts these last couple of months. Did the 50k per year education pay off?

Indeed, the majority of President Obama’s cabinet consists of liberal arts graduates. Emily Dickinson, Jack Kerouac, and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket)—my dear authors and authoresses--all hold liberal arts degrees, as well as Oprah Winfrey, Nancy Pelosi, and Meryl Streep, the voices of modern women. The international community admires the American liberal arts.

You will have a memorable experience. You will leave with a mind sharpened by questioning, driven by curiosity. You will study philosophy, history, politics, history, language, psychology, and culture. You will wake up one day and, with a jolt, realize you have opinions about all of the above. You leave with the ability to able to verbalize them.

Still, in this time of underemployment, I stave off encouragement of the liberal arts education. For, it may not guarantee a job.

I, a graduate of a good college, watch my peers with professional degrees find jobs and leave home. They go into marketing, and business. They know how to sell and how to make money. How long, I ask myself, will my sense of superiority last? Before, my desire to find a compelling job that simultaneously “changes the world” and helps people, collapses in desperate desire for something that lets me move away from home?

Right now, I wait patiently. Life after graduation has been crushing, surprising, but ultimately fulfilling. Somehow, despite not having landed my dream job, being demoralized by too many hours of underpaid, overworked labor, I have found it to be strangely exciting, and far richer than the limits my pre-grad imagination had proposed.

In any case, who is to measure the worth of a liberal arts education? How are we to measure a term as ambiguous as worth?

They say college determines your life, but no one has ever measured the number of successful liberal arts graduates against the number of professional degree graduates. No one has yet tried to quantify success, or at least with consolidated agreement. The happy post-graduate will laud their education; the unhappy, write bitter articles about a poor investment. Perhaps though, their blame cannot be directed at such a narrow source. Perhaps success does not hinge on a college education, but on skill, drive, and a good amount of unforeseen luck. Perhaps the school is irrelevant.

Dear bright prospective of Stanford, Yale, or State college, I cannot offer you much wisdom with my four years of seniority. Still, I leave you with several words of advice: Make good friends; soak up the knowledge you can; then, take it from there.



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