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In Defense of the Liberal Arts

During the holidays, families will gather to reconnect and talk about their pasts, presents and futures. As often happens, those at the table who are in—or about to enter—college will be asked which studies they are pursuing. And if tradition holds, there will be no misers at the table when it comes to doling out opinions and advice.

So when Uncle Harry asks you, “What on earth are you going to do with a history degree? Who needs the liberal arts?” Be ready with this answer: “We all do.”

As someone who goes to work every day with the incredibly talented professionals at Connecticut Public Television and Radio—the home of “Media for the Curious”—take it from me: society needs all the critical thinking, curiosity and creativity that degrees in the liberal arts can muster—from sociology to history, the classics, art history, philosophy, theology, political science, theatre, economics, psychology, mathematics and physics. Yes, math and physics are liberal arts, too.

Connecticut is a shining beacon of educational institutions that prize the liberal arts, yet the cost is high—so high that for many, it’s almost out of reach. As a result, the value of traditional liberal arts degrees is being derided, with some colleges and universities feeling pressure to focus on so-called “practical” degrees that will supposedly render their graduates immediately employable. This is a false choice.

Connecticut’s high-technology, insurance, financial and manufacturing companies need hard skills to thrive, and many hiring managers seek people with the critical thinking skills honed by the liberal arts. After all, no challenge can stand against the examination, analysis, curiosity and sharpness of a mind whose gaze is lifted and view is broadened by a liberal arts education.

Albert Einstein put it best, "The value of an education in liberal arts … is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned in textbooks." The solution, therefore, is not to drive first-generation college students away from the liberal arts, but toward them.

I come at this question from an extremely pragmatic point of view.

On any given day at Connecticut Public we create stories about some our world’s seemingly intractable problems: climate change, democracy under stress, continued income inequality, unresolved struggles with racial divides, unequal access to housing and bile-filled politics that encourages the narrowing of the mind, not an expansion of it.

Think about it: In a world of “alternative facts,” where a social media post can spark an angry mob, we should be producing people whose minds and perspectives are trained to be broad, perpetually curious and equal to the task of analyzing and solving these problems.

People who have changed the course of history often developed and sharpened their minds through a liberal arts education. A few of these are Alexander Hamilton, who studied literature and law, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, economics and sociology; Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, history and Jawaharlal Nehru, natural sciences.

Martin Luther King, Jr., studied sociology; Justice Sonia Sotomayor, history; Harriet Beecher Stowe, classics, languages, mathematics; Booker T. Washington, agriculture; Harvey Milk, mathematics, Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi and Frances Perkins, physics.

Oprah Winfrey studied communication; Reed Hastings, mathematics; Audre Lorde, library science; David Brooks, history; and Diane Sawyer, English.

While a liberal arts degree won’t guarantee that you’ll change the world the same way others have, the world needs more problem solvers who dare to think, engage, observe, analyze, understand and express themselves.

As the leader of an organization that provides media for the curious, there are few better ways to support curious people than advocating for the expansion of the liberal arts in our state.
Hoping that your holidays will be full of joy and—particularly this coming year—curiosity.

Mark G. Contreras, President and CEO, Connecticut Public