IDEAS: Engineering showed me the value of a liberal arts education

Charles Stevens, Guest Columnist
Charles Stevens, Guest Columnist

Don’t marginalize liberal arts.

John Pepper’s career is one for all to look up to. Attributing his success to a liberal arts education is a valuable plug for that branch of the education tree.

Later in life and career I learned, the hard way, why that was terribly shortsighted. I discovered that getting an engineering program approved and funded was two-thirds getting the math right and one-third (or more) communicating your idea, plan, and benefits to your chain of command.

The more at stake, the greater the need to be able to clearly communicate. Much of that one-third (+) required those liberal arts skills I minimized in college. Playing catch-up to be adequate in writing and speaking was a hard but necessary self-improvement that allowed me to succeed technically.

As a supervisor of engineers and scientists, I spent much more time working with my folks on polishing their proposal presentations than correcting the technical aspects of their program. There is another wall for liberal arts majors to climb: Business schools. The expansion of undergrad business school curriculums and their graduates over the last 50-60 years has taken away positions and opportunities that liberal arts majors once filled.

I’m not blaming business schools. Modern corporations, competing globally, had a need for other business specialties than accounting and the business schools answered.

Liberal Arts graduates have been fodder for MSM and student loan forgiveness advocates because of stories showcasing them working in retail and restaurant hourly jobs, stuck with enormous educational debt, and no way out.

Those stories suggest that for every John Pepper success there may be 100 minimum wage workers with BA diplomas. If true, then something should be done to better prepare liberal arts students for post-graduation.

Start with high school guidance and career counseling. Many high school students do not have a clear picture of what they want to do later in life. There are stories from those students of counselors and family telling them to just get into college and figure it out later.

The push to attend a four-year college over other options can defy common sense. This approach worked when tuition and living expenses were low, and high school college prep was more robust. Starting out in remedial courses, changing majors, and taking another year or two could be managed.

Today that time can cost you an extra $10,000-$20,000. Dropping out because of debt or frustration compounds the problem, leading to a minimum wage job with a lot of debt.

Should students get a more realistic assessment of their ability to immediately do college-level work? Should more complete career counseling on their options and aptitude for majors be done? Are blended degree programs with liberal arts, business, and other employment-oriented programs practical?

Should universities have put two and two together early on? Is it a straight line from business schools’ success to opportunities for liberal arts students decreasing? If we had imagined that relationship a generation earlier, what changes in our education process could have been made that benefit both needs?

Universities working with industry leaders to define desirable, employable traits and skillsets can go a long way to defending liberal arts programs. In the end, if companies do not employ liberal arts students in professional positions, then liberal arts departments will continue to be marginalized.

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