This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 45, number 2/3 (2022).
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What does it profit a person to gain a job and lose happiness?1 The proper college degree will help you gain both a job and happiness. The truth is that no major, no education can ensure anyone a job. This is because the future is uncertain. Revolutionary change can sweep away the old rules in an instant: if you prepared to work for the Soviet system at the University of Moscow in 1988, you were obsolete in 1989. Liberal arts education does not try to guess what the world will be like decades from now, when a freshman today is at the height of his or her career. Instead, a liberal arts education focuses on what has always been needed, guessing that if one has need of a skill to succeed in the years 1722, 1822, 1922, and 2022, those skills will still be needed in thirty years.
What Is a College Degree For?
The institution of college grew out of a Christian desire to seek goodness, truth, and beauty. Young men got training to become gentlemen. This began as a purely class distinction, but times changed. Being a gentleman became as much or more about behavior. A gentleman acted with virtue. When a wealthy family sent a son to college, they anticipated he would become a man.
Some job training was involved, of course: lawyers, ministers, and medical doctors required training in order to enter the three leading professions of Christendom. The training was intense, but college also wanted these men to be gentlemen. Nobody wanted a lawyer, pastor, or doctor who was a cad. The central focus of college was not, however, getting a job. The central focus, rather, was cultivating a certain way of living. At best, this was the cultivation of virtue.
Despite garnering increased job training responsibilities after World War II, the college retained its first role: creating a leadership class for the Republic. College was not, perhaps, the most efficient way to do more expansive job training, but the growth of “practical” majors at liberal arts colleges all over the nation exposed more students to training in virtue. Sadly, some of these schools abandoned their old liberal arts mission to double down on the practical, while others allowed the liberal arts to become a confused mess of multiple majors. Fortunately, more than a few liberal arts colleges kept a strong core of classes that retained training in virtue. This was particularly true in Christian colleges.
Most colleges retained some of the old mission of training good leaders alongside the new task of job training. There is often a tension between these tasks, though, which results in time-wasting, shallow liberal arts classes combined with job training classes that could have been more efficiently done in industry or without the distraction of other coursework.
The Soul of Christ–Shaped Liberal Education
The pure liberal arts major refuses to accept the bloat and the tension that developed in the twentieth century college. She wants instead what Theodore Roosevelt got: mentoring at an excellent liberal arts college. She might be seen by some as operating at a disadvantage. After all, the student who declares this year’s favorite “practical” major is getting some liberal arts and a clear career track. Yet, surprisingly, the end result is that the liberal arts major finds herself in a strong practical position. Not doing job training (directly) turns out to be excellent job training, as many companies have discovered.2 Before looking at the evidence that this is true and why it is so, we must pause and remind ourselves of one thing: done properly, a liberal arts degree has human value and, after all, there is no profit in gaining the world and losing the soul.
A Christ–shaped liberal education makes a person penitent, because we see the goodness of God and our own inadequacy. We are not what we hope to be. Humility in the face of God, seeing God’s endless beauty, truth, and goodness shows us that we can learn, world without end. College sets us up for Paradise: we recover the lost tools of eternal learning. The liberal arts education instills deeper literacy, critical reasoning skills, and some depth of knowledge about the home culture.
Finally, a good liberal arts education rejects the modern tendency to turn learning into a commodity and centers its processes instead around the relationship of a mentor and a student. The curriculum is what a student needs to develop (or at least to understand) courage, moderation, prudence, and practical wisdom. The Christian liberal arts college provides a guide to hope, faith, and love as the greatest virtues.
On its own, a book cannot make you virtuous, but you can learn about virtue from a book and practice that virtue under the guidance of a good teacher in a small community. If a student can find a Socrates or Jesus, they should follow him. Such genius in history is rare, however, and few of us will study under the equivalent of such teachers. Instead, Christ–shaped liberal education seeks out decent mentors for us. If the teachers individually are not Socrates, then it must also be remembered that the students are rarely Plato (his greatest student). When a Christian liberal arts education is working, the disciples of Jesus walk with younger disciples of Jesus, and Christ within is made evident to all: full of grace and truth.
The Practical Worth of Liberal Studies
Given an academic’s tendency to study things, it’s not surprising that the value of a liberal arts education itself has been studied. The result is conclusive: a liberal arts degree is monetarily valuable.3 In sum, a liberal arts education helps a graduate get a job and improves his or her economic prospects. This is not surprising since liberal arts majors have honed three perennially marketable skills: reading well, writing well, and thinking well. Add in numeracy and the liberal arts major is well prepared for a diversity of careers.
Why prepare for a diversity of careers, though, instead of doggedly focusing your preparation on a single career plan? Studies show that less than one-third of people end up actually working in their majors.4 According to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker has ten different jobs before the age of 40.5 Besides, trying in four years of one’s late teens and early twenties to gain the specific skills necessary for a certain job is all but impossible. Even the most specialized of majors will require a lifetime of on–the–job training to keep current in the field. The liberal arts major has lifetime skills, and this may be one reason they are not as likely to be unemployed. It is the mental flexibility that is featured in liberal arts education — and not learning skills that often become antiquated in a few years — that exactly fits the workplace.
Think about the future. If you are starting college at eighteen, you will end your career more than fifty years from now. What will the economy look like in fifty years? Take any year from American history more than fifty years ago and do a search for predictions about the economy from that year. You will find that the predictions almost always were wrong.
You can see this for yourself by comparing the Fortune 500 list from 1986 to that of 2019. I graduated in upstate New York where practical parents would have steered me toward Kodak (33 on the 1986 list) or Xerox (40) as safe corporate bets. Kodak, so powerful in Rochester it then was called the “Great Yellow Mother” for the color of the company film boxes and the security of jobs, is today a shadow of itself and doesn’t even appear on the 2019 list. Xerox is 318th. Meanwhile, though no one then realized it, investing in Apple or looking into Walmart would have been a good idea.
The dawn of the internet disrupted many plans. Everyone faced change: education, which seemed insulated from the online revolution, wasn’t. If you were teaching at the time, the differences could be frightening (“This is not what my practical credential taught me!”) or exhilarating. Fortunately, the liberal arts education I received helped me anticipate key changes, and so by the late 1980s, I was experimenting with teaching philosophy on a Commodore 64 via a service called Q-link (you’ll probably need to Google those). The point is that my liberal arts education helped me adapt and even lead in education.
By focusing on enduring things, the liberal arts major knows what does not endure. The educational practice of the 1980s did not account for the internet because there was no internet. The world was bound to change as it always has, but establishments, the most practical folk, are built to last. Human nature, however, did not change with the coming of the internet. Humans still needed to read well, write well, think well, and be mentored into virtue.
The great folly is to try to guess change. Things change in unexpected ways, and the colleges that sell you today’s practical major are really marketing what would have worked if you had graduated twenty years ago. They are, in other words, selling you today’s jobs based on present trends — but you will live decades longer (God willing) than today’s jobs may exist.
An Eternal Response
A college cannot be sure what the economy will look like by the middle of your career, but you can be certain that Paradise will be shalom. God deals with different peoples in their own languages and in the images that will work for them. Yet God does not change. College, you recall, was created to look for the eternal. The highest education looks to God, since the eternal truth, the deepest beauty, and purest goodness never change.
Perhaps most practically, the one thing all of us humans can be sure we will do is die. This fact is seldom included in college brochures because, as life insurance salespeople know, nobody likes preparing for death or even admitting they will die. Colleges bent on selling education (with lots of debt!) as a commodity will ignore the fact that one (albeit not the only) job of education is to prepare us for a good death. Eternity awaits us, and no amount of cash, fame, or power on Earth prepares us for eternity.
We will die. Everyone knows this, but few of us think about it. Why? If death is the end, then we need not consider death as part of our behavior. Death, so the thinking goes, ends everything. Yet, compelling reasons suggest that death is not the end, and if this is so, then preparing for the afterlife is necessary. Christianity does not take the fact of death to imply that this life does not matter. So, a good education would make us fit for this life while preparing us for the life to come. Christ-shaped liberal education is designed to do this: make human life whole, from conception to death.
Nobody can learn without desire, a form of love. We see beauty in art and feel love. We see the glory of the stars and feel love. We see an elegant proof in logic and can feel love. Something good, beautiful, and true proves love. This love drives us to know and so achieve genuine education. Love endures, never failing. Love is the fuel to drive us toward the Good. We desire and so we work, and by grace through faith, God meets our need.
Nothing and no one but the eternal God can meet the deep desire beauty stirs in our souls. If this is so, then a liberal arts education is necessary to health. We want something deeper than jobs, and if we are not given hope of gaining that we will despair. A good, Christ–shaped liberal arts education probably (almost surely) will help one get a good job, but most vitally, it will point one to the Love that moves the heavens and the furthest stars.
John Mark Reynolds, PhD, is President of The Saint Constantine School and Saint Constantine College in Houston, Texas.
- This essay is adapted from John Mark Reynold’s chapter in Rekindling an Old Light: The Virtue and Value of Christ-shaped Liberal Arts Learning, ed. R. Keith Loftin (Houston: Moral Apologetics Press, 2022).
- For just one example, see Sydney Johnson, “As Tech Companies Hire More Liberal Arts Majors, More Students Are Choosing STEM Degrees,” EdSurge, November 13, 2018, https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-11-13-as-tech-companies-hire-more-liberal-artsmajors-more-students-are-choosing-stem-degrees.
- Such studies have been performed many times, in fact. For an excellent example, see Catharine B. Hill and Elizabeth Davidson Pisacreta, “The Economic Benefits and Costs of a Liberal Arts Education,” Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, January 2019, https://mellon.org/news-blog/articles/economic-benefits-and-costs-liberal-arts-education/#top.
- Brad Plumer, “Only 27 Percent of College Grads Have a Job Related to Their Major,” Washington Post, May 20, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/05/20/only-27-percent-of-college-grads-have-a-job-related-to-their-major/.
- “Number of Jobs, Labor Market Experience, Marital Status, and Health: Results from a National Longitudinal Survey,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 31, 2021, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf.