University of Notre Dame professor and author, Mark Roche, spoke about his latest book “Why Choose the Liberal Arts?” to University of Mary Washington faculty, staff and alumni in Klein Theater last week.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, liberal arts studies are “intended to provide a chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.”
Roche’s lecture, taking place on Aug. 29 at 4 pm, outlined the major ideas of his book, which defends a liberal arts education and debunks the common perception that a degree in the arts will leave graduates jobless since their degrees have no specific vocational direction.
Roche tackled this claim by explaining that liberal arts students, such as those at UMW, are prepared for the workforce based on their assumed ability, “to think critically, communicate, understand different viewpoints and think outside of the box,” after four years of study.
An ally in promoting liberal arts is Richard Finkelstein, dean to UMW’s College of Arts and Sciences. Finkelstein says the greatest benefit of a liberal arts education is that it, “shapes people’s minds to make them critical thinkers and allows them to be productive, good citizens.”
Mary Rigsby, professor of English, agrees, “liberal arts encourage students to think in new ways.”
Other professors present, including Art and Art History Professor Marjorie Och, had very similar outlooks, as well as Finkelstein who pointed to an employment study.
The study, which was done by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, claims that the top four skills that employers look for in new employees are “effective oral/written communication,” “critical thinking,” “knowledge applied to real world setting,” and the ability to “analyze/solve problems.” The eighth most important skill is “concepts/development in science/technology.”
Though employers look for applicants with these general skills, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed to a study by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce that shows humanities degree holders initially have a higher post-graduate unemployment rate overall, in contrast with vocational oriented degrees.
The study lists “Clinical Psychology” (19.5 percent), “United States History” (15.1 percent), and “Miscellaneous Fine Arts” (16.2 percent) as the top three majors with the highest unemployment percentage rates.
“Pharmacology,” “Geological and Geophysical Engineering” and “Astronomy and Astrophysics,” all of which have direct vocational application, are all ranked at a zero percent unemployment rate, according to the study.
Though the media, such as the Wall Street Journal, tends to focus on the hard facts of employment rates, Roche drives home the idea that education isn’t just about getting a degree that acts as a ticket to the job world.
Instead, the speaker focused on how degrees should benefit the individual. Roche called the liberal arts “character forming.” Enjoying academics and learning across disciplines helps a person to grow morally, according to Roche.
He supported this point by pointing to liberal arts schools, such as UMW, who have high rates of post-graduates that join the Peace Corps. In fact, among small colleges and universities, UMW has the largest number of alumni who have joined the Peace Corps, according to their web site.
His defense of a liberal arts education continued as Roche noted that liberal arts classes ask “great questions,” including theoretical mysteries concerning such topics as religion and science. These questions, he said, will exercise the brain and lead to answers to more practical questions.
Roche received his bachelor’s degree in the History of Ideas, a master’s degree in Philosophy and his doctorate degree in German literature. Roche was Dean of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame, department chair of Germanic Languages and Literature at Ohio State University and is now a professor of both Philosophy and German at Notre Dame.
Roche is the author of seven books, more than 30 academic book reviews, over 35 articles and continues to write conference papers and give lectures.