Is There a Tension Between the Liberal Arts and Career Readiness?

By Madeleine Murphy

The Liberal Arts are often criticized for failing to prepare students for the “real” world. Denison President Adam Weinberg has been fighting back against that sentiment through recent articles and investments on Denison’s campus. In a recent article Weinberg said this plainly when he wrote: “Companies need a workforce that is adaptable, flexible and can learn new ways of thinking and doing things—which is precisely what a liberal arts education trains students to do.” He has backed his words up with investments in our career exploration center as well as the creation of the new Denison Edge – a brick and mortar location of the career center in downtown Columbus offering courses and workshops aimed at giving students skills they may not already be getting in the classroom.

These articles and investments seem to be trying to position Denison as the liberal arts college that can have it all, but do students agree? In February 2022, we asked students a series of questions about this topic including directly asking them if they agree or disagree with the statement “I feel a tension between career readiness and my liberal arts education.” We found that only a quarter disagree and almost half agree (or strongly agree) that there is a tension – much more tension than I expected.

Interestingly, this tension is mitigated or exacerbated depending on what you are studying. The tension between career readiness and liberal arts seems to be felt most by students who are undecided (25% of them strongly agree) and students whose major is in the Arts or Social Sciences divisions. The division that feels the least amount of tension is the Sciences. These results are surprising because I would expect a chemistry major at a liberal arts school to feel a tension between the specialized skills they need for a career and the broad courses you have to take as a liberal arts student. These wide-ranging courses are exactly what I would expect prompt career readiness concerns for science majors. In disciplines like the Arts or Social Sciences, the broad classes tend to align with the skills they need postgrad or help build skills for students who are undecided still figuring out what they want to do. It seems something about a liberal arts education is getting lost in translation for departments that are hallmarks of the liberal arts.

The cultural narrative about career readiness and liberal arts is so strong that the tension between them is felt at Denison despite the school, professors, and parents arguing the opposite. Two-thirds of students agreed that their parents believe a liberal arts education promotes career readiness. Additionally almost three-quarters of the students surveyed said professors think the liberal arts promote career readiness. Despite both of these important influences, 40% of students feel there is some tension.

Are any of the adults in the room getting through? Do students feel less tension when they have parents and faculty who support the role of the liberal arts in career readiness? It seems that professors have no influence in this regard (see below) – no matter their perceived opinion on this tension, students feel some tension. Instead, students appear to reflect their parents’ attitude on this question. Students definitely feel a tension between the liberal arts and career readiness when they believe their parents feel that way too. Interestingly, there just doesn’t seem to be a way to break through these feelings of tension. No force we looked at gets the average score to a place where they disagree with the tension.

Despite all the work Denison has done to set itself up as the liberal arts college that has cracked the career readiness code, there is still hesitancy from students to buy in fully. I think this is because we as a community still need to learn how to talk about it. Career readiness is pitched as an extra thing to add to your degree and extracurriculars to make yourself marketable. It is an additional course or meeting to put on your schedule and that creates anxiety and stress, so if you are not doing 10,000 extra career readiness things then you are not going to be ready for the real world. These additional skill or support does seem to decrease the stress students feel about life after graduation and this connection is shown in this onetwentyseven post.

Instead, I think Denison students should be learning how to talk about what they are already doing as ‘marketable’. We need to know how to articulate the value of learning how to learn, how we articulate our ideas and opinions, how we have hard conversations with people who disagree with us, and how we have practiced becoming good humans and citizens (which can feel like a rarity). If we can reframe the conversation and talk about career readiness not just as how well you can use excel or how many linked-in connections you have but as how ready you are to work in an ever-changing, diverse world that needs smart, articulate leaders, then liberal arts students will realize they are already head and shoulders above the pack.

Madeleine Murphy is a Junior Philosophy, Politics, and Economics major with a Data for Political Research minor (say that 5 times fast). When not writing for onetwentyseven, she is dealing with the bureaucracy of student government as speaker or pulling out all the cheesy jokes as a tour guide. Find her on LinkedIn.

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