The Practicality of the Catholic Liberal Arts
Michael F. McLean, Ph.D., President of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA, recently delivered a talk to Catholic professionals and those in business, arguing for the value of a Catholic liberal arts education.
Dr. McLean hit familiar notes -- the Catholic liberal arts develop character, deepen faith, form spiritual sensibilities, connect students with the richness of Augustine, Aquinas, and other Western greats -- but he also emphasized its practicality. One doesn't hear this often. A Catholic liberal arts education is often seen as distinct from an education more focused on job and career preparation. The impression, then, is that if you study Augustine and Aquinas, you're going to be unprepared. But according to McLean, recent studies suggest otherwise:
The first, done by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, analyzed data from the 2010-11 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Among the survey’s key findings: 1. At peak earnings ages (56-60 years) workers who had majored as undergraduates in the liberal arts earned annually on average about $2,000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields; 2. The unemployment rate for recent liberal arts graduates is 5.2 percent. The unemployment rate for mature workers (ages 41-50) with liberal-arts degrees is 3.5 percent — just .04 percent higher than the rates for those with a professional or pre-professional degree. 3. Forty percent of liberal-arts majors hold graduate or professional degrees; these graduates with advanced degrees experience, on average, a yearly boost in earnings of nearly $20,000.
The second, conducted in 2013 by Hart Research Associates, consisted of an online survey of 318 employers whose organizations have at least 25 employees and who report that 25 percent or more of their new hires hold either an associate degree from a two-year college or a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. So, let’s hear from the employers: 1. Ninety-three percent of those surveyed agree that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major; 2. More than 90 percent of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity and the capacity for continued new learning; 3. More than three in four employers say they want colleges to place more emphasis on helping students develop five key learning outcomes, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and written and oral communication; 4. The majority of employers agree that having field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates if they are to achieve long-term career success. Few think that having field-specific knowledge alone is what is most needed for career success; 5. Finally, 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.
More surveys could be cited, but I hope I have given you enough data to indicate the utility or practical value of a liberal education. Income and employment levels, as well as the testimony of employers, provide strong evidence for the worth of a broad and well-organized education which is not necessarily directed to a specific vocation or profession.
As with much else within a Catholic framework, the goal should not be an either/or but a both/and. Students can study theology and mechanical engineering, in fact seeing the former and the latter as inter-related at their deepest levels, informing each other and ultimately allowing students to get some imperfect glimpse of the intelligibility of the Creator.