Liberal arts is a field of study that produces thinkers

Michael A. Smith

By A Contributor

“The average graduate leaves with $22,000 in debt and a diploma which may or may not translate into a real-world job.  This system would benefit from a discussion of return on investment.”

-Rep. Nick Rhoades (R-Newton), Chair of the Kansas House Budget Committee

Liberal arts are on the chopping block.  The president of the Florida state senate recently asked why state universities produce graduates “with degrees like political science, which don’t mean much.” 

I find that quip rather astonishing, given the way our program at Emporia State launches graduates into successful careers: public administration, law, education, political advocacy, and other fields.  However, the quote above is not an isolated incident.  Nationally, liberal arts are getting the boot in favor of “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, which train students for some of today’s better-paying jobs. 

The U.S. Senate recently approved an amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to slash National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for political science data-collection and research.  Other fields are not safe, either. Florida Governor Rick Scott, a K.C. native and UMKC graduate, wonders, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” 

Closer to home, the Kansas House seeks a four percent cut in next year’s higher education budget, the Senate wants a two percent cut, and Governor Brownback seeks a “flat” budget, at this year’s level.  All three proposals leave university administrators no choice but to cut, in order to fund employees’ skyrocketing health-insurance premiums. 

Have we forgotten that liberal arts students are major job creators?  Consider a man named Jobs:  Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Computer.  Jobs attended, but never graduated from Reed College, an academically rigorous, very expensive private liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon.  Jobs felt guilty spending his parents’ life savings, so he stopped enrolling in classes.  He just sat in on his favorites, studying away. 

He had a particular fondness for calligraphy.  These classes had no real-world relevance for an early-1970s corporate America of IBM machines and hard-drinking “Mad Men.”  Yet just a few years later, Jobs’ passion for design would transform our everyday lives and create thousands of new, private-sector jobs.

State-supported universities offer such exploration at affordable prices, so students don’t have to choose between exhausting their families’ life savings, or “dropping out and dropping in.”  I went to college at Reed, and I am often reminded of my old school when teaching at Emporia State.  ESU’s traditional curriculum features small classes taught directly by professors, intense reading and writing assignments, close advising, and deep class discussions.  Where will all this be after budget cuts?

Had Steve Jobs sought only job training, he might have learned to program mainframe computers in “C,” or configured punchcard readers.  He would leave college to be a “jobs filler,” not a creator.  He would have learned nothing about innovation, creativity, or seeing new possibilities.  Technology would have eliminated the jobs for which he had trained, long before his untimely death.  Yet Steve Jobs took a different path.  He saw what did not yet exist and molded it into something real.  This is the very definition of a jobs creator.  No wonder that a 2010 report commissioned by the Kansas Board of Regents found this: every dollar invested in higher education yields an $11.92 return on investment. 

Is it in the vital interest of the state to offer such an education to its citizens?  Yes, I think so.

The author is anassociate professor at Emporia State University. He can be reached at

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