By Mel Wensel, Director of Academic Services, UW English Department
Can you guess what the following individuals have in common?
Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney
Garrison Keillor, Host of NPR's "A Prairie Home Companion"
Toni Morrison, Author
Diane Sawyer, Broadcast Journalist
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA Player
W.E.B. Dubois, Author
Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court Justice
Martha Stewart, Entrepreneur
Obviously, all of these people are celebrities in business, entertainment, the arts, and public life, but did you know that they all majored in two of the quintessential liberal arts subjects, English and History? So much for the hoary old myth that a liberal arts major is a one-way ticket to a dead-end job!
Although most History and English grads aren't destined to become media superstars or Supreme Court justices, evidence abounds that capable liberal arts majors have excellent prospects for professional success. Numerous studies have shown that the skills most valued by employers are the transferable skills commonly developed by liberal arts majors, including:
Liberal arts alumni who go on to become employers have a special appreciation for the skills that our students bring to the workplace. The Winter 2006 issue of A&S Perspectives highlights the careers of three UW English graduates, all Seattle area entrepreneurs and CEOs, who understand the relationship between liberal arts education and professional success.
Abundant evidence for the professional value of liberal arts B.A.s can be found easily in alumni data bases. A recent search of English Department records revealed countless successful individuals working in business, marketing and sales, the media, government, law, non-profit, education and research, the arts and entertainment, publishing, writing, technology and the internet, and more. Only one alumnus reported being a "waffle house griddle operator!"
The future looks similarly bright for UW History graduates. At a recent career event hosted by the History Department, students were treated to real-life career advice from banking and investment professionals, a foreign service officer, a video-game designer, a real estate agent, an organic farmer, and the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity—just to name a few. As the Microsoft mother of a current History major told her: Business degrees can get you in the door; liberal arts degrees give you the skills to move up.
In spite of evidence to the contrary, however, the myth of the "useless" major persists to an alarming degree. We see its prevalence at freshman orientation sessions when 80% of the new students say they plan to major in either business or engineering. We feel its effects on students who struggle with familial pressure to choose "practical" majors. We experience the power of the myth most acutely during tough economic times when anxiety about post-graduation employment soars.
Advisers at the University of Washington know that 70% of all our students will be graduated from majors in Arts and Sciences, and that most of them will go on to satisfying and well-paid careers. And we know that this reality doesn't come about merely because of insufficient space in competitive professional programs. Most students do finally follow their intellectual passions, even if it's by way of a circuitous and tortuous path. How can we communicate these truths to students so that they can find their way more quickly and surely to satisfying majors and careers? Here are some practical tips: