Expected Outcomes For Humanities Students



Since much of the current rhetoric of the humanities is defensive and utilitarian it is doubly important to emphasize the positive contribution of the humanities to our lives as human beings. Aristotle was right: there are things worth knowing for their own sake! To be acquainted with seminal texts, thinkers, and ideas is to acquire permanent possibilities of delight. Nevertheless, it takes courage to insist on the merits of this type of education in the current milieu. Supporters should take heart from the likes of Eva Brann who boldly praises an education that is “extended, expensive, nonutilitarian, uncertain (and certainly unquantifiable) in outcome, and possibly destabilizing.”[1]


It is imperative that these features of liberal arts learning be held up before a wary and cynical public. Nevertheless, as Brann also notes, this education “could not survive if not for the fact that learning undertaken for its own sake” . . . operates in a world that is “hospitable to liberal learning.” The happy accident of pragmatic serviceability is not the direct aim of liberal arts learning, but “an obliquely achieved . . . by-product.”[2]


In the last half century, universities and colleges have been buffeted by an increasing clamour for pre-professional degrees in fields such as commerce, nursing, accounting, and computer programming. In response, many have refashioned themselves as job training institutes. In the United States, only 200 or so institutions produce more humanities graduates than pre-professional.[3] On the other hand, several thousand institutions focus on professions, careers, and technical occupations. It is broadly assumed that an “education” must lead directly to specific career or job positions.


Christian higher education in Canada has been dominated by similar vocationalist concerns. Vocationalism, another term for this concentration on acquiring credentials for specific employments, still informs many of the curricular assumptions at Briercrest.[4] Students are routinely counseled to choose a major directed at what they intend to do with their lives. The assumption is that a direct curricular focus on the practices, skills, and minimal credentialing of the first vocational position is the best preparation for a lifetime of service.


There is compelling evidence, however, that the dominant vocationalist model does not provide adequate preparation for any career, especially a business or technical career. Careful research into the opinions of business leaders reveals that they are not nearly as enthralled with vocationalism as many universities, colleges, parents, and college-bound high school students are. In the past ten years, corporate officials have become increasingly vocal in their call for a different model of career preparation.[5]


Recently, thirty CEOs from high-tech companies in Canada called for different models of education. Their manifesto pleaded for “broad-context” employees who are culturally-literate, able to think creatively, reason well, work with others, and read and write persuasively.[6] In spite of their pressing need for employees with high-tech skills, these CEOs resolutely affirmed that these broader competencies are needed even more in their companies. Recent events, such as those surrounding September 11th and the politically-charged BSE crisis in western Canada, show how important it is to have people who are able to navigate the cultural-technical-political complexities of a transnational world.


To prosper we need creative thinkers at all levels of the enterprise who are comfortable dealing with decisions in the bigger context. They must be able to communicate—to reason, create, write and speak—for shared purposes: For hiring, training, managing, marketing, and policy-making. In short, they provide leadership.


For example, many of our technology workers began their higher education in the humanities, and they are clearly the stronger for it. This was time well spent, not squandered. They have increased their value to our companies, our economy, our culture, and themselves, by acquiring the level of cultural and civic literacy that the humanities offer.[7]


Even within technical fields, liberal arts graduates are able to compete successfully with their peers who have had specific training in the field. In 1996, Robert Allen, an economist at the University of British Columbia, uncovered an interesting feature of the career paths of social science and humanities graduates. Although their peers with pre-professional degrees were often able to acquire jobs more easily and do better in the first few years, the social science and humanities graduates progressed more rapidly after the first few years and often ended up higher in the corporation.[8] Allen attributed their rapid advancement to their ability to manage and synthesize ideas as well as to see the larger context within which the corporation operates.


Thomas Hurka reports similar findings from an AT&T study that showed that “after 20 years with the company, 43 percent of liberal arts graduates had reached upper-middle management compared with 32 percent of business majors and 23 percent of engineers.” Hurka further reports that “the Chase Manhattan Bank found that 60 percent of its worst managers had MBAs, while 60 percent of its best managers had BAs. At IBM, nine of the company’s top 13 executives had liberal arts degrees.”[9] For all of its purported success in preparing students for their first job, the vocationalist strategy is not clearly advantageous in the medium to long term, especially for those who enter managerial or supervisory roles.


Les Chapman, manager of recruitment at IBM Canada, recently declaimed that “the days of the one-dimensional person are over.”[10] Rosemary Gordon, public affairs manager at Proctor and Gamble, suggests that her corporation is most interested in people who have “the ability to take initiative and follow through.”[11] And in a speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto, Matthew Barrett, then Bank of Montreal chairman, argued that


it is far more important that students graduate from university having read Dante, or the great historians of today and yesterday, than understanding the practice of double-entry accounting. . . . Education should impart not facts, not training, nor even skills above essential literacy and numeracy, but rather the “cross-curriculum” abilities to reason, to imagine, to think laterally, and perhaps most important, to welcome learning as a continuing and essential part of life.”[12]


In summarizing her investigation of what employers are looking for, Tema Frank concludes that “there is a growing recognition among employers that much of the value of a university degree lies not in the vocational aspect of the training, but in teaching students how to think, to communicate those thoughts, to be open to lifelong learning, and to manage time commitments.”[13]


Further support for concentrating on these general intellectual competencies is offered by Thomas Hurka. Citing a 1985 study of the test scores of college and university graduates, Hurka reported that philosophy majors outperformed all other undergraduates in the standardized tests required for admission to business, law, and medical schools. Philosophy majors easily outperformed business majors on the GMAT test used in the application process for MBA programs, even though the latter group had vocationally-specific training in business. The study concludes that, on tests measuring aptitude for advanced professional study, “undergraduates who major in professional and occupational fields consistently underperform those who major in traditional arts and science fields.” The study further concludes that the students “who major in a field characterized by formal thought, structured relationships, abstract models, symbolic languages, and deductive reasoning” do better on these tests. The more abstract a subject (e.g., philosophy, mathematics, or theoretical physics), the more it develops reasoning skills; and the stronger a person’s reasoning skills, the better he or she will do in any applied field.[14]


There is a major discontinuity between the results of these studies and the perceptions of the general public, parents, and high school students. These differences were highlighted in a national study conducted by Daniel Yankelovich of the polling firm, DYG Inc. His data revealed that less than forty percent of business executives responsible for hiring described preparing for a career as an important reason to attend college. By way of contrast, seventy-five percent of parents and eighty-five percent of high school students agreed that “the reason to go to college is to prepare for a prosperous career.”[15] By a more than a two-to-one margin over parents and high school students, business executives affirmed the importance of college as preparation for the future and as an opportunity to gain maturity and self-improvement. Richard Hersh, president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, after analyzing Yankelovich’s findings, concludes that “CEOs value the long-term outcomes of a college education.”[16]


It is regrettable that only one third of the parents and one quarter of the high school students viewed the liberal arts positively. Perhaps one of the reasons is that “parents and college-bound high school students have very little familiarity with the meaning or purpose of the liberal arts.”[17] Hersh attributes the problem to conflicting accounts of practicality. This ambiguity about the nature of practicality helps explain the difference between the views of business executives and parents/high school students. The common perception by the latter group is that liberal arts learning is impractical and, as such, a luxury that few can afford.


Hersh challenges this common perception by arguing that business executives are no less practical than parents. Their experience, however, has led them to consider educational practicality in terms of its long term effects and not primarily as the delivery of an entry-level position. A senior business executive is well positioned to appraise the adaptability and transferable competence of an employee as she encounters new and demanding situations. From this mature vantage point, the most practical education may well be one that fosters the competencies necessary for success across the entire career.


Liberal arts graduates are not significantly disadvantaged in the short term either. Hersh argues that liberal arts education has a crucial and decisive practical advantage over other forms of education and training, an advantage conveyed chiefly through its “sustained student involvement” in the life of the college. Much of the research into educational outcomes highlights the importance of an environment that encourages students and faculty to work closely with each other. Students who acquire new knowledge in these settings are greatly advantaged in learning how to apply and adjust knowledge to the broader situations of life and employment. The residential liberal arts context is uniquely situated to bring about this interactive, practical, and multiplying effect. Hersh concludes that “transformative experiences are, ironically, the kind of education that is most practical for the twenty-first century.”[18]


It is no surprise, then, that eighty-four percent of liberal arts graduates are “very positive” about their education. But, as Hersh indicates, they are not just satisfied in some vague, elitist, or globalized sense, but with the practical advantages it has afforded them in many areas of their lives. Ironically, Yankelovich’s study found that liberal arts graduates “are passionate in their belief that their liberal arts education prepared them better for professional life than any preprofessional degree could have.”[19] In other words, they almost universally affirm the practical advantages they enjoy over those peers who were schooled primarily in practicalities.


To conclude, the humanities offer an education that is simultaneously delight-giving and practical. Those who pursue a rigorous humanities program have every reason to believe that they will emerge with mature cognitive, presentational, and social skills. They may also be captured by an enduring delight in literature, history, the fine arts, or philosophy. What employer would not want such an employee? Or, more importantly, who would not want to be this sort of person?


Joel L. From, Ph.D

9 September 2004

[1]Eva T. H. Brann, “The American College as the Place for Liberal Learning,” Daedalus 128:1 (Winter 1999): 152.

[2]Brann, “The American College,” 156-7.

[3]David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, suggests that of the 540 so-called Liberal Arts Colleges in the United States only about 212 of them issue more than sixty percent of their degrees in non-professional fields. See David Breneman, “Are We Losing Our Liberal Arts Colleges?” in The College Board Review (Summer 1990): 17.

[4]To further clarify, I am using the term vocationalism to refer to the assumption that the best way to prepare for a career in ‘x’ is to focus the undergraduate curriculum on the current practices and entry-level skills of ‘x’. Types of learning which might indirectly prepare one for ‘x’ and, ironically, senior positions within ‘x,’ are typically overlooked or ignored.

[5]The Corporate Council on Education, a federally-sanctioned and supported program of the Conference Board of Canada released an Employability Skills Profile in 1996. This blue-ribbon panel called for increased attention to academic skills (communication, thinking, learning), personal management skills (positive attitude and behaviours, responsibility, adaptability), and teamwork skills (working with others). Notably absent are technical or occupationally-specific skills. The Corporate Council argues that the identified “generic skills, attitudes and behaviours” are what employers look for in new recruits and are the catylists which “ensure that Canada is successful in the global economy.” See Employability Skills Profile: What Are Employers Looking For?” Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, January 1996. The document is available as a PDF file at the Conference Board webpage.

[6]“High Tech Chiefs Join Fight to Save the Liberal Arts,” Southam News and Ottawa Citizen, April 8, 2000.

[7]“High-tech CEOs Say Value of Liberal Arts is Increasing,” [A Press Release Prepared and Distributed by 30 Leaders of Canada’s High-Tech Industries in Spring 2000]; Available at http://www.humanities.ualberta.ca; Internet; accessed 19 August 2003.

[8]Gary McGowan, “Liberal arts graduates better at problem solving” Edmonton Sun, 7 January 2001. Reprinted at http://www.ualberta.ca; Internet; accessed 19 August 2001.

[9]Thomas Hurka, “How to Get to the Top—Study Philosophy,” The Globe and Mail, 2 January 1990, A8.

[10]Frank, “What Do Employers Want,” 8.

[11]Cited in Frank, “What Do Employers Want? 9.

[12]Cited in Frank, “What Do Employers Want?” 8.

[13]Frank, “What Do Employers Want?” 8.

[14]Hurka, “How to Get to the Top,” A8.

[15]Richard H. Hersh, “The Liberal Arts College: The Most Practical and Professional Education for the Twenty-First Century,”Liberal Education 83:3 (Summer 1997): 28.

[16]Hersh, “The Liberal Arts College,” 30.

[17]Hersh, “The Liberal Arts College,” 31.

[18]Hersh, “The Liberal Arts College,” 33.

[19]Hersh, “The Liberal Arts College,” 29.