Thursday, August 22

Scott Bays: Information seminars can help fight stigma against liberal arts degrees


Last summer, I went home for a week to visit my parents after New Student Orientation. I had spoken to my dad multiple times since orientation ended, but was too nervous to tell him about the harrowing thing I had done there. I knew I had to tell him at some point, so one afternoon, on the way to the grocery store, I broke the news to him:

“Dad, I switched my major to history.”

He turned to me, too shocked to say anything. Those three seconds felt like an eternity as he took in the fact that I had switched my major from glamorous business economics to tiresome history. We sat in silence before he finally spoke:

“Better start preparing for medical school … if you want to make any money, that is.”

Since then, I’ve managed to convince my dad of the merits of a history degree. However, many students similarly believe that any liberal arts degree isn’t worth the effort.

For this reason, UCLA’s liberal arts departments should implement mandatory seminars for their incoming students that introduce topics of interest in the major and promote the skills students will attain, as well as the job opportunities open to them.

Better informing students about the value of a liberal arts degree and how they can use the skills conferred by the major in the real world would help them fight the stigma that these fields of study are fruitless. As long as this stigma continues to circulate, many future students will avoid liberal arts majors.

Perhaps this is why, according to UCLA’s history department undergraduate adviser Paul Padilla, the number of students majoring in history at UCLA and across the U.S. has fallen by half in the past six years.

And the history major isn’t the only one facing these problems. For many, any liberal arts degree is a waste of time. As the mantra goes, it’s tough to get a job in the liberal arts field.

Many students have co-opted this idea. Kensharra Davis, a first-year undeclared life sciences student who wishes to earn a minor in English, said that she has no interest in pursuing a liberal arts major.

[Related: UCLA Department of History announces addition of history minor]

“(Liberal arts) are more fun than science or math. With them, you can be more creative. … But I couldn’t get a job with those, unless I wanted to be a professor or teacher,” she said. The history minor was only added this year because there was never room for students wishing for a history minor because of the high number of students pursuing the history major. With a sharp decline in majoring students, however, seats have opened up.

Davis’ opinion echoes that of my dad and many others. This belief that a liberal arts major won’t yield profits has caused many to flee from it.

Mandatory seminar courses are already common among science and engineering programs, in which incoming students are informed about the latest research being done in their fields and exposed to alumni who share what they’re doing with their degrees.

Discussion about liberal arts degrees typically centers on their perceived lack of future profitability rather than their merits, making for a one-sided debate. Mandatory seminars would change this by better informing students about the skills they will attain, such as critical analysis of written and spoken words, the ability to conduct research in a quick, efficient manner and the ability to write in a more cohesive fashion, allowing for better self-expression. Employers in a wide array of fields value these skills, making liberal arts degrees marketable.

By inviting professors and alumni from within the major to speak weekly about the degree’s merits, students would be better informed about liberal arts and the value they possess. For instance, a seminar from the history department could discuss topics relevant to the current political climate, such as Augustus’ consolidation of authoritarian power in Rome, the origins of Abrahamic religions and ways of avoiding anachronisms when analyzing history.

In addition, students would learn about the skills they’ll obtain through a history degree, and how they can lead to fulfilling careers such as advertising executives, campaign workers, journalists and public relations staffers, or even the president – five U.S. presidents have held degrees in history.

Of course, liberal arts degrees rarely possess a direct path to a career. But lacking a direct path isn’t equivalent to lacking a path in general. For this reason, rather than being solely career-oriented, the mandatory seminars should cultivate interest in the subject and spark ideas about how the skills acquired in the major could be incorporated in the world.

Students deserve to better understand the benefits of a liberal arts degree before eschewing it for something that interests them less but appears to be more profitable. By offering mandatory seminars to incoming liberal arts majors, students would learn valuable information about these majors and be better able to explain their merits to others.

Then, maybe future students won’t be told they have to go to medical school if they hope to make any money at all.

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Opinion columnist

Bays is an Opinion columnist.

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