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Relax, English Majors

By L. Jay Lemons
President of Susquehanna University 

The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 16, 2011

Would you take career advice from Steve Jobs? At a recent Apple product unveiling, Jobs said, "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing."

On college campuses, spring is the season for singing and anxious hearts alike. Seniors rejoice in their accomplishments and jockey for post-commencement employment or graduate school opportunities. Parents hope their children will take a good first step on the career ladder. A demanding economy and job market await.

Every year, some of the most nervous graduates are liberal-arts majors, who have been told by too many people that they are unprepared for the future. This is wrong. If they have been diligent, they are prepared for a future in which many of tomorrow's jobs don't even exist yet.

At its core, a liberal-arts education develops the habits of head and heart needed to master any field. It also gives students the capacity to draw on many disciplines. We expect students to build from numerous fields as they seek to understand and address important questions in their lives and careers. We want them to acquire "the discipline and the furniture of the mind," to quote the famous Yale Report of 1828.

Although written nearly two centuries ago, in response to critics of that institution's educational approach, the Yale Report remains a strong defense of liberal arts in the 21st century. It is rooted in the belief that education must "throw the student upon the resources of his own mind."

In 2009, Susquehanna University put in place a curriculum that retains the key elements of a traditional liberal-arts education while providing students with opportunities for real-world application of the principles and practices they learn. It also requires students to complete and reflect on a study-away experience of two weeks or longer in a culture different from their own. I like to think we have been true to the spirit of the Yale Report, and that Steve Jobs would approve.

What do employers want in the spring of 2011? Eighty-nine percent count effective oral and written communication skills among the attributes they're looking for, according to a survey of 302 employers by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Eighty-one percent have high regard for critical thinking and analytical reasoning; 79 percent seek employees who can apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings; 75 percent value strong ethical standards; and more than two-thirds want workers who can understand the global context of situations and decisions.

These attributes can be found in the nation's liberal-arts graduates.

On graduation day, many of our diploma holders will find jobs waiting for them. Surveys show that within six months of graduation, more than 90 percent are employed or in graduate school.

A tiny minority will stay in the careers they enter for their entire working lives. The vast majority will change careers several times: They will be thrown upon the resources of their own minds.

Those who are fortunate enough to be liberal-arts college graduates possess "the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge." They are positioned for success in the long run.


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