Money on the Liberal Arts

At an academic panel in Atlanta on the morning of the Virginia-Auburn bowl game, an alumnus posed a question that has been posed many times, and with increasing frequency: Given all the national emphasis on the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), what did I think was the prospect for the liberal arts at the University of Virginia?

The short answer to the question is simple: ours is the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and we produce more STEM majors than any school in the University. One third of all students in the College graduate with majors (either single or double) in the sciences. This includes Psychology, which at U.Va. tends to be heavily experimental and neuroscience-oriented.

This liberal arts tradition has a long and venerable pedigree, going back hundreds of years. The medieval concept of the artes liberalis counted seven areas of requisite learning for a “free man” (the Latin liber meaning “free”) with three arts focusing largely on facility with language—grammar, oratory, and logic—and four that are broadly mathematical—geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy.

One of the best modern examples of this venerable tradition is the liberal arts curriculum built around the Great Books, those considered the sine qua non for every educated person, as famously advocated at the University of Chicago from the 1930s onward. They were to be taught in small class settings, using primary or original materials, with give-and-take discussions rather than lectures, almost always on interdisciplinary subjects. While elsewhere the structure of the undergraduate curriculum nationally has oscillated back and forth like a metronome between the importance of requirements versus electives, Chicago still mandates two years of required courses for freshmen and sophomores. At Virginia the liberal arts remain a comprehensive curriculum that privileges the study of the arts and sciences, while continuing to differentiate itself from artes illiberalis or artes mechanicae, training in technical or vocational skills.

Yet, that still does not answer the question that our alumnus posed in Atlanta. When all is said and done, I don’t think proponents of the liberal arts have done a good job articulating the mission of artes liberalis. Part of the problem is that the value of the intelligence that the liberal arts seek to foster is largely immeasurable and unquantifiable. If one agreed that the liberal arts are aimed at creating a “free man” (whoever this person is), what kind of intelligence characterizes him? What is he or she qualified to do with this intelligence?

These questions are particularly vexing in our country. The American public has never been comfortable with the notion of the life of the mind as a virtue in and of itself. The sociologist Richard Hofstadter in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, placed resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind (as well as the disposition to minimize its value) at the core of the American character. The distrust of the intellectual is the obverse of the American tendency to celebrate practical success. Looked at this way, anxiety about the liberal arts is nothing new; it is a recurring problem in American life.

At the core of this tension, Hofstadter argued, is the different place reserved in the American imagination for what he calls intellect on the one hand, and intelligence on the other. He defines intellect as the “critical, creative, and contemplative side of the mind,” that constantly “examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, [and] imagines.” Intelligence, on the other hand, “seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, and adjust,” and will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Americans have long admired the traits of intelligence, but showed ambivalence toward intellect. An innovator like Henry Ford would be a good example of applied intelligence, even if his intellect left something to be desired. Steve Jobs is a more recent example: a brilliant innovator, knowing what consumers would want before the product even existed, and then designing those products with great style and panache. But in all the deserved encomiums to him after he passed away, few put their finger on lasting ideas that might define his intellect, or the contemplative side of his mind, a mélange of Eastern and Western ideas typical of so many of his generation.

This distinction between intellect and intelligence is interesting, and it goes a long way to explain the complexity of American attitudes and the fluctuations in the public’s relationship with the academy—and, in particular, the liberal arts. The American public might silently, sometimes grudgingly, admire intellect for its learned dignity, but may be all too quick to poke fun at “the eggheads,” as they were called in Hofstadter’s time.

The College of Arts and Sciences, more than any other unit in the University, is a place where intellect and intelligence commingle in a complex ebb and flow. Even Thomas Jefferson, duly renowned for both his intellect and his intelligence, would fluctuate in his estimation of the scholar versus the common man. In a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, he wrote in 1787: “State a moral case to a plough man and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” The “artificial rules” might suggest not ideas but abstruse dogma, whereas the plough man’s ideas are, perhaps, rules of thumb that an intellectual would not recognize. Jefferson’s felicitous expression “the useful science” suggests that he did not see the two approaches as mutually exclusive.

A similar call for combining the intellect and the intelligence was made in 1837 by Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The American Scholar,” an essay often thought to be America’s intellectual Declaration of Independence. The education of the scholar was not through books alone, he said, but through the resources we have inherited from our childhood—and through the influence upon the mind of nature: “Everyday, the sun: and after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Everyday, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men who this spectacle most engages. . . . The mind now thinks; now acts; and each fit reproduces the other.” In the right state, he is, “Man Thinking,” and in the degenerate state, he becomes a “mere thinker.” “Man Thinking” is the human in his environment; the “mere thinker” contemplates the world from his study, rarely leaving it.

How do we create this “right state,” such that the American scholar is “Man Thinking,” reflecting the best mix of intellect and intelligence? One important factor is something that seems far removed from both intellect and intelligence: money. Lionel Trilling observed that in many civilizations there comes a point when wealth prefers the rule and company of mind and imagination. And he went on to compare intellect with money—both circulate and change, the value placed on both fluctuates (sometimes radically), both are conceptually hard to define, both are fluent and fluid. For Trilling, intellect and money are not simply similar, they are symbiotic: “money finds that it needs intellect, just as intellect finds that it needs money.” But, he suggested, the relationship between money and intellect may be hard to fathom; they may be unaware of each other and their similarities, making it easy for an opposition to develop between them.

Please note: this equation of money and intellect is not a pitch for liberal arts fundraising. My point instead is that now is one of those times when the money and the intellect may be finding themselves in opposition. Good business practices and the argot of economics are as influential in academe as they have ever been, with a huge increase in the number of administrators and much self-examination about efficiency and productivity in both teaching and scholarship. These are important concerns, but it is also well worth remembering that the best teaching and scholarship produce, first and foremost, both intellect and intelligence.

My money is still on the liberal arts. Somehow in a country privileging knowledge—and increasingly, information—that is practical, utilitarian, and instrumental, the American intellect that Emerson exalted continues to survive and even flourish.

30 Responses to “Money on the Liberal Arts”

  1. Robert Lyons says:

    Well said – an education in the liberal arts prepares us for life and for thinking – College – Class of 68.

  2. David Thurlow says:

    I graduated from the CLAS in 1980, with a degree in history, after having taken a broad swath of classes across the college. The facts of what I learned have in many cases been overcome by subsequent research and developments. However, the biggest single takeaways from my education seem still valid: the need to approach problems from many directions, the willingness to consider multiple sources of information and input for solutions, and the requirement to be properly skeptical of all of them.

  3. V. Heard says:

    Chicago, but not Virginia, actually practices what the Dean preaches.

  4. Holly S. Hurlburt (CLAS 93) says:

    Dear Dean Woo-

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful blog post. I teach history at a public university in Illinois and feel that my undergrad liberal arts education at Virginia has left me in good stead for instilling in my students a love of learning for both the not-easily quantifiable skills it may provide (communication, critical thinking and writing) but also simply for the sake of learning. Certainly at my institution we can and must do more to celebrate and promote the liberal arts.

  5. Harvey W. Gleeksman says:

    I move to approve your resolution unanimously.

    I matriculated at UVA in one of the professional schools, but soon switched to the College, thence aiming toward this and then that major, finally ending up in Philosophy. I could not have been more fortunate. As the decades have passed I believe, ever more staunchly, my liberal education has served me so well with what I like to believe is an ability to think critically as well as creatively, harbor a reasonable store of varied knowledge and information such that I can confront new situations with a basis for comparison and analogy as well as a basis to enjoy so much in a wondrous, even if dismaying world.

  6. John says:

    Wonderful discourse. Interesting how often we consider the intellect and intelligence as the exclusive domain of our mind, as though thought or consciousness can exist apart from our environment. I think the “plough man” may have a more intuitive understanding of our relationship with nature–that we exist only as a part of creation.

    The exchange of money certainly mirrors how we choose to see value. The investment in my university education (Liberal Arts) has been one of my wisest and most enduring.

    Great appreciation for your thoughtful words.

  7. Gerald Cooper (UVa '58, '69) says:

    Meredith Woo is amazing in her ability to understand and discuss American intellectual history, and to apply the importance of that knowledge to the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Virginia. How fortunate that she guides the college and its curriculum in the 21st century. She also seems to appreciate, as Mr. Jefferson did, the interests and pursuits of older, even retired, alumni, who, having learned about Emerson’s “Man Thinking” image while at the University, would like to pursue intellect and intelligence to the end of their days.

    P. S. Wouldn’t it have been great if Steve Jobs could have received the liberal arts education that he was offered? He might have avoided many pitfalls that are recorded in Walter Isaacson’s biography—by studying the liberal arts. But I’ve enjoyed Macs for 24 years….

  8. Randy DeHoff A&S 75 says:

    This post brought an experience of “deja vu all over again.” In the early 80′s UVA did a survey of A&S graduates, published in 1986 as “Life After Liberal Arts.” The ERIC abstract begins: “A career survey of arts and sciences graduates between 1971-1981 was undertaken by the University of Virginia to determine how liberal arts graduates do in the working world. When asked what type of education they would recommend to undergraduates, 91% answered a liberal arts degree.” I have a copy of the study in my files somewhere, but I would encourage UVA to publish the study online.

    Then, as now, there was a strong push for science and engineering, and liberal arts colleges throughout the US were wondering if they had a future. Turns out they did, and still do, for much the same reason they were established in the first place.

    As the parent of four children, the findings from that survey were tremendously freeing when my children started thinking about college. I was confident that getting a good education was vastly more important than what major they pursued. Thus I could encourage one daughter to pursue her passion for film by majoring in film, knowing that the combination of her intellect and intelligence would serve her well into the future, long after her interest in film diminished.

    The challenge for UVA, now as then, is to maintain that “intellectual” excellence throughout the curriculum, balancing it with the necessary pursuit of “intelligence,” perhaps better stated as “knowledge.” It is that balance that has made the University the unique institution it is.

  9. Joseph D. Rudmin says:

    Money is a very useful tool, but like any tool can be abused. To the extent that we are free to use it, money allows us to display our personal relative preferences for goods and services that others offer to us, and money tells us something of the relative value of the goods and services we can provide. But when money is taken by force of arms, it expresses only the relative preferences of the wielder of the arms. The feedback communication of money is thereby broken. Then needs go unmet, and the quality of goods and services deteriorate. Eventually they can seem to entirely disappear.

    If less value seems to be placed on the liberal arts, perhaps services based on the liberal arts are deteriorating. Perhaps our money, taken by force of arms, and given for what purports to be liberal arts is perverting those services to something that we do not value. In that case, we should look to other, perhaps less efficient feedback mechanisms than money, to help us find liberal arts that we do value. For example, perhaps we should look at what clubs students like to join. Perhaps we should look to organizations that do not receive money that was taken by force of arms. For example, I suggest looking in churches and civic organizations, where the money is given entirely voluntarily. Perhaps UVa could obtain better arts by restoring the feedback mechanism of money.

  10. Brawner Cates says:

    Great post as always. Can’t help thinking of the great UVA professor Ray Bice, a scientist who thoroughly enjoyed sharing the Jefferson Cup of Knowledge with delighted students in C-Ville for decades. I think Ray Bice found his home at the academic village and certainly hope Dean Woo has as well. Life is much more fun when you find your niche and do it well. A liberal arts degree helps in that pursuit. Brawner Cates, College 1967

  11. Dale Hershman says:

    I believe that students and educators of the Liberal Arts have greatly undersold the cold, hard, financial value of a rigorous Liberal Arts undergraduate education. Today’s business world is a marathon, not a sprint: students coming right out of the gate with “practical” skills may do better at first, but the world now moves so fast that those with the strongest overall education eventually leave the “quants” “techies” and “specialists” in the dust. Simply put, there are no fixed facts or skills that don’t quickly become outdated: she with the strongest underlying mental and emotional processes wins.

    Because of my strenuous education in letters, I have been able to essentially teach myself several lucrative trades in the dozen years I have been out in the real world. I have impressed several employers and business partners with my ability to learn new things quickly and with minimal coaching. Thank you Thomas Jefferson!

  12. Michael Heasley A&S '79 says:

    After waffling a bit on my major at UVA, I decided that, more than anything, I needed a liberal arts education; UVA offered one of the best. My decision was derided by many but I stuck to it, and I’m very glad I did. It has served me well, both professionally and personally.

    I’m also very heartened by the survey Randy referred to and wonder what the results of a 2011 career survey would look like.

    I also agree that UVA faces the continuing challenge of maintaining intellectual excellence. That challenge may have been behind the query of the alumnus from Atlanta: “What is the prospect for the liberal arts at UVA?”

    I’m not sure the question was definitively answered. I read the question more as “What does the future of liberal arts at UVA look like?” than “Why get a liberal arts education”?

  13. Robert E Scully, Jr. '76 A&S says:

    Dean Woo once again has made her case well. With apologies to “The Godllike” Daniel Webster and his classic Second Reply to Hayne, I offer this restatement of her position:

    “[May our Republic] bear for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is all this worth?” nor those other words of delusion and folly, “Intellect first and intelligence afterwards”; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its sample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart, – Intellect and Intelligence, now and forever, one and inseparable!

  14. Meredith Woo says:

    The College is much bigger than most liberal arts colleges. I myself went to a college that is just one-tenth the size of ours. So there are constraints we need to work with, and we have been creative in so many ways. One of our strategies is to create a “barbell”-shaped structure, making the gateway courses larger to take advantage of their economies of scale and, at the same time, creating a large number of small seminar-type classes. For example, we’ve launched our new Pavilion Seminars, where groups of 15 students focus on a range of issues that impact contemporary life. Pavilion courses are multidisciplinary and involve faculty from a variety of departments. The idea is to bring students together across different majors, with different perspectives and maybe at different places in their own student careers – all with a faculty guide. We have also created one-credit, graded seminars open to all first-year students and second-year transfers, called the College Advising seminars (or COLA). About 80 percent of the COLAs are devoted to the substance of the course itself, with about 20 percent earmarked for group advising issues. This is an effective way to combine the best advising with liberal arts education.

  15. Terry Birkel A&S 1969 says:

    This is a very timely call to renew the debate of past decades. For example, I quote the synopsis of a seminal 1981 JAMA article: “Twenty-five leading physicians, medical educators, and humanists convened and affirmed the contributions of a liberal arts education to the study and practice of medicine. Participants agreed that overemphasizing technical expertise does have deleterious effects on premedical and medical education, which might be alleviated by encouraging a more broadly based undergraduate and medical curriculum.”

    As an attorney who received a B.A. in History in 1969, I am reminded daily of the value of a broad liberal arts education both in my professional work and in the quality of my life. I remain a student of history, literature, politics, the arts and numerous other fields because largely of my liberal arts education. As a litigator I am constantly confronted with the need to integrate technical subjects with business or other conduct and to draw on my learning of the human condition to either negotiate or to litigate a dispute. Need we look any further than the 10-year mistake of the Iraq War to validate the conclusion that — especially in the time of international, political and scientific turmoil — the argument for liberal arts education remains compelling.

  16. Gary McGraw says:

    Well put.

    One of the reasons we were so keen on the idea of forming the (now available) Bachelor of Arts degree in Computer Science was to tap into the stream of well-rounded liberal arts thinkers that the College attracts. We certainly need a few less-than-geeky kids studying Computer Science now that its fruits pervade the planet.

  17. Chaton Turner says:

    The case for the Liberal Arts degree is well articulated. Having graduated from CLAS with a degree in Economics and Spanish Minor I have always valued the education that I received. It served me well in my first career and was good preparation for law school. That being said, I think that students graduating today would benefit from supplementing their education with some STEM classes, perhaps even a minor. The liberal arts education may feed their souls, but their STEM classes may help them feed their stomachs.

  18. SD says:

    As a recent graduate of the College (but with a B.S. in Biology) and now medical student, I am struck by how well the intelligence vs. intellect dichotomy describes the challenges of many of us recent alums. In my personal life, I find myself referencing the ideas and readings of my liberal arts classes almost on a daily basis. The sociology, philosophy, and media studies classes I took “for fun” are those that probably shaped my view of the world the most! However, I am convinced that, in today’s competitive working environment, there is no way I would have been able to get the research jobs and experiences I “needed” to gain acceptance into Medical School. I would like to be optimistic that employers and admissions committees would take to heart words like yours and articles like one of the comments mentioned in JAMA, but I don’t see it happening. It’s just too competitive out there– the number of qualified candidates outweighs the number of opportunities, period. Your money may be on liberal arts, but it seems like that the geeks and techies I know from UVA, not the liberal arts majors, are the ones taking what’s out there, even if they can’t quote Emerson.

  19. BwD says:

    As someone whose currently in the college and on their way towards graduation (chemistry) I can safely say that after taking some great humanities courses, nothing in my life has changed and I still feel the exact same prior to taking them. My outlook hasn’t really changed and as for philosophy…I’ve came to the conclusion that why any of it should matter is beyond my comprehension (took 3 classes here at UVA). The people are really pretentious too. I really wish I wouldn’t of wasted the credit hours. But regardless, I learned some cool stuff in art history and english criticism classes.

  20. Patrick Sweet, MD says:

    Dear SD,
    In retrospect, I am very much satisfied that the only option I had for a major in Biology at U.Va. was a B.A. I heard the calls for a B.S. and luckily it was not changed until after I was graduated. Proponents argued that biology was a science, so why would it be a B.A. degree, the archetype of a liberal education? Many pre-meds argued why the additional foreign language requirement when they were studying so hard for a career in science? That argument demonstrates an ignorance of what liberal arts is — a study of many arts and sciences that introduce a young man or woman to general intellectual culture and hopefully refine the intellect — not the narrow pursuit of a technical, vocational, or professional knowledge. Given that medical education is a pursuit of a defined corpus of knowledge (albeit, ever changing and yet the same — you will see), it is best to approach it with the foundation necessary for critical thinking and appraisal rather than blindly accepting dogma (otherwise, we would still be doing frontal lobotomies for personality disorders or radical mastectomies for breast cancer).

    The American Association of Medical Colleges understands this well enough to allow any major of study for medical school admission, as long as certain basic pre-medical requirements are met. These include a one year study each of organic and inorganic chemistry, biology, physics, and english. That is all. No advanced or highly technical coursework is necessary. The Medical College Admission Test is geared towards this, as well. I would discourage pre-medical applicants from even studying a subject as innocuous as anatomy — the subject matter experts reside in the anatomy departments of medical schools — better to study other subjects that you will not have the opportunity to learn about later.

    This is one of the reasons why a B.S. in nursing is not considered to be the type preparatory degree necessary for admission to medical school (though not impossible to gain admission or to be a fine clinician), because it is based on a narrow, technical field (essentially the direct, medical care of the sick and injured). A field that is very dogmatic about how it is executed — for good reason — e.g., free thinking about dosage and timing of potassium chloride or morphine sulfate cannot be tolerated for the safety of the patient. Therefore, dogmatic rules and strategies are taught to nursing students to protect against medical errors in these areas. This is, of course, in the paradigm of the traditional physician-nurse relationship. Always remember, that as a burgeoning physician, you will need to maintain a big picture approach to patient care that will require thinking outside of dogmatic algorithm. That is just for being a practicing, successful physician. To be one of the giants, however, you will truly need to push this envelope to places that a narrowly trained technocrat may never envision, but that a liberal or free thinker may foresee.

    I leave you with guidance from Sir William Osler, M.D., F.R.S., a man who changed the face of medical education that we enjoy (particularly the requirement for clinical clerkships). It is a short missive to medical students and a book list recommended for reading from his book of essays “Aequanimita.” I adopted this list for my own library. You would be surprised how the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, is apropos to maintaining equanimity in the face of the hardships of medical education and residency.


    A liberal education may be had at a very slight cost of time and money. Well filled though the day may be with appointed tasks, to make the best possible use of your talents, rest not satisfied with your professional training, but try to get the education, if not of a scholar, at least that of a gentleman. Before going to sleep read for half an hour and in the morning have a book open on your dressing table. You will be surprised to find out how much can be accomplished in the course of a year. I’ve put down a list of ten books with which you may make close friends. There are many others; studied carefully in your student days, these will help in the inner education of which I speak.
    I. Old and New Testament
    II. Shakespeare
    III. Montaigne
    IV. Plutarch’s Lives
    V. Marcus Aurelius
    VI. Epictetus
    VII. Religio Medici
    VIII. Don Quixote
    IX. Emerson
    X. Oliver Wendell Holmes Breakfast-Table Series.

    Patrick Sweet, MD
    CLAS ’01

  21. Patrick Sweet, MD says:

    Cursory review of this article and its findings do not show any causal relationship that I can see. There may be some correlations (ie, not causal) that support your argument, but there are also some that support the liberal arts argument. It is a wash. Attached is the data graphic link, which is most telling of their results but still tells us very little about their methodology, power, significance, etc.


  22. Owen B. Tabor MD says:

    Wonderful article and comments all. I would add to Dr. Sweet’s list Jane Austen, – right under Shakespeare! Thank you.

  23. Gerald Cooper (UVa '58, '69) says:

    Most of us write these comments in too much of a hurry–reflecting the lifestyles we’re caught in. You have a few forgiveable mechanical errors in what you wrote; however, to say of philosophy that “why any of it should matter is beyond my comprehension” suggests that you weren’t paying attention. I took 24 hours of undergraduate philosophy, which exposed me to David Yalden-Thompson, Harry Pemberton, Marcus Mallet, and Dr. Balz–to name a few–and I got an experience that was challenging, erudite and humane. The philosophy professors also taught me how to take persons of other disciplines in stride–including the pretensions of an English department that was fractured over the presence and continuation of William Faulkner as writer in residence. Professors Fred Gwyn and Joe Blotner rose above that fray–they wanted Faulkner there; those who curried favor with “the administration” by opposing Faulkner, showed themselves to be out of step with progress. Faulkner’s presence was, in the 1950s, the single most tangible aspect of the University’s becoming a liberal arts institution of national reputation—as Jefferson envisioned.

  24. Meredith Woo says:

    Dear Brawner: He was indeed a remarkable scholar and teacher who touched the lives of thousands of students over his 50-year career at U.Va. For those of you who do not already know, I am sorry to share the sad news that Ray passed away on December 22 at age 93. Here are links to obituaries on Ray that appeared in UVa Today and the Charlottesville Daily Progress:

  25. MHF says:

    I am coming at this from a different perspective — that of a parent with a current CLAS student at UVa. For those UVa Alumni commenters of about my age (BS 1977/JD 1980, neither from UVa), I don’t doubt the value of your LAS education over your lifetime, but you came of age in a different time. In our day, the Fortune 500 ran large training programs for recent college grads, as did many of the large banks outside the Fortune 500. Elite college campuses were crawling with recruiters anxious to recruit and then train LAS grads. That is certainly not the case in corporate America or at UVa today.

    I sympathize with the current CLAS students and the recent grads who question their decision to major in the liberal arts. Employers do not value the degree — or at least they are not recruiting CLAS graduates-to-be in large numbers at UVa. It is possible that phenomenon will be short-lived, but one need only to compare the interview schedules at the general UVa Career Services to those at the COMM and ENG schools to see the limited recruiting value placed on UVa CLAS students today. Certainly graduate studies and professional schools are an option for CLAS graduates, but many of those prefer some job/real world experience before matriculation.

    An additional comment/question for Dean Woo — I noted with interest your reference to oratory as one of the traditional liberal arts. Why is it, then, in the past 5 Spring and Fall semesters no class in public speaking has been offered by the English, Drama or any other CLAS department at UVa? (One of the ENSP classes was offered in summer school in that time frame, but still . . . ) Indeed, for Spring 2012, the only public speaking class is offered in the COMM school, but like COMM’s excellent career center, it was only open to COMM students. This omission from the CLAS offerings is glaring to me. I hope it can be rectified soon, although sadly it is not likely to be before my student graduates in 2013.

  26. Meredith Woo says:

    Dear MHF,

    I also remember the days when the Fortune 500 companies and banks used to take bright college graduates and provide boot camp training for accounting and other skills. But these days it is not infrequently that I hear heads of corporations and non-profits extol the value of workplace skills grounded in the humanities—like communication skills and broad thinking. An executive at Deutsche Bank mentioned to me recently that his group was specifically looking for people who are “creative,” and can “think outside the box,” and as for the other skills, he thought that stuff can be taught. He is particularly focused on smart liberal arts graduates, including our own. I also noted with some curiosity what Edward B. Rust Jr., chairman and CEO of State Farm Insurance Companies, said: “At State Farm, our employment exam does not test applicants on their knowledge of finance or the insurance business, but it does require them to demonstrate critical thinking skills” and “the ability to read for information, to communicate and write effectively, and to have an understanding of global integration.” Google has sung the praises of humanities students and threw down the gauntlet: “We are going through a period of unbelievable growth,” reports Google’s Marissa Mayer, “and will be hiring about 6,000 people this year — and probably 4,000-5,000 from the humanities or liberal arts.”

    All of this is anecdotal, of course. As for the overall data about employment, I find the graph provided by Drs. SD and Sweet—with all healthy skepticism regarding methods—useful. True, our liberal arts graduates don’t do as well as the graduates of agriculture and natural resources, education, and health; but over time, liberal arts graduates with some experience seem to be doing remarkably well. And it is well worth remembering that even in these difficult times, the unemployment rate for college graduates—both with vocational and liberal arts degrees—is much lower than the national average at the current 8.5%.

    Unlike professional schools, CLAS does not have its own separate career services office. But CLAS students account for the vast majority, about 80 percent, of students serviced by the University Career Services. There are a number of understandable reasons for the lower rate of interviews for liberal arts majors in contrast to business majors, including the decision of so many of our students to go directly to graduate and professional school. But I also think that the demand for liberal arts majors can be boosted by a more active outreach on our part, and we will do our best to bring more prospective employers to Grounds for interviews.

    As for public speaking, you are correct to note that public speaking has largely disappeared from the liberal arts curriculum, not just at U.Va. but across the country. Rather than offer special classes for public speaking, the emphasis is on small classes where students can speak up, articulate their views, and engage in discussion. They can also join debating clubs and hone their public speaking skills in other extracurricular settings.

  27. MHF says:

    Dean Woo,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. I truly appreciate the time you took to respond to my concerns. I agree that active outreach to potential employers can help the plight of current and future CLAS students who are not aiming for a future professional degree or a career in academia. Recently one of your assistants spoke to a group of parents in Northern Virginia, and I believe she mentioned plans for a UCS satellite office on Central Grounds specifically to assist CLAS students are in the works. That would also be a welcome addition to UCS.

    As to the best method for inculcating CLAS students with valuable public speaking skills, I guess we will just agree to disagree there. Speaking out loud in small group settings is certainly good practice for all, but I don’t think the oral presentations in those classes are often evaluated for style of speaking, voice projection, etc., by a specialist in public speaking.

    My child rolled the dice on a general LAS education at UVa rather than pursuing a broadcast journalism degree at other fine institutions. Based on the official list of UVa courses published at the time he was deciding on a college, there appeared to be many options for piecing together a plan of classes that would assist him in gathering information and learning skills that would be valuable to his future career plans. Unfortunately, he has subsequently learned that a large number of those courses, while still “on the books,” are not actually offered anymore at The University. Please don’t misunderstand me though; my child loves UVa and is enjoying many of his classes within the CLAS umbrella — but he has about run out of classes interesting to him and is hoping to spend a large portion of his 4th year “class” hours on UIP experiences that will help him become employable upon graduation.

  28. Eugene Desyatnik says:

    Completely agree. I have also switched to the College (after Engineering). The so-called soft skills (culture sensitivity – both individual and corporate culture; navigating organizational hierarchies and politics; understanding inherent motives of all the players, and so on) have definitely helped, while I’ve found most of the more job-specific technical training was in any event often provided by employers. This is not to debase a solid engineering degree, but more a reflection on the current mix of skills I found to be in demand in the States, even within IT (possibly following some off-shoring of the more technical positions).

  29. Mark P. Ettinger, M.D. says:

    Anyone can teach facts, but regurgitation of facts does not provide all skills needed for one to progress in life and professionally. The critical element of successful education is helping a student learn how to think and critically analyze. The College prepared me for the latter, albeit some professors were much better than others in helping students to discover how think; I took the minimum pre-med science classes, feeling that I would get plenty of that later, as indeed I did. The College gave me the skills needed for a future in science and research.
    Please apply my monetary contribution for this year specifically to departments and teachers within the College of Arts and Sciences, who excel in helping students in the College discover how to think and analyze for themselves.

    Mark P. Ettinger, M.D.
    Coll ’67