Why a liberal arts degree holds value in the second machine age

I recently caught up with an old friend whose daughter graduated from high school this year. My friend’s pride in her high-achieving child was obvious, but when I asked about her daughter’s intended college major, her enthusiasm was noticeably muted. She admitted that her daughter’s decision to study musical theatre at a liberal arts college was a source of anxiety and concern for her family, whose definition of career success is focused on traditional fields such as medicine and engineering.

My friend’s anxiety over her daughter’s decision to pursue a liberal arts degree should come as no surprise. It has become conventional wisdom among many politicians and pundits that a liberal arts degree is a costly folly. Leaders like President Barack Obama and Florida Governor Rick Scott have disparaged liberal arts degrees as useless – despite the fact that they have provided pricey liberal educations for their own children.


In fact, while opinion leaders pitch the idea that only STEM degrees are a certain path to career stability, futurists have noted that digital technologies will likely make even high-paying STEM careers like computer programming and anesthesiology obsolete. American workers who are best trained for 21st century career success will be those who know how to adapt to an evolving career landscape by possessing broad, transferable skills.

I’m not arguing that STEM careers are a bad choice. But the skills that make all workers  – even those who choose STEM careers – valuable are boosted, not diminished, by a liberal education. In fact, in their groundbreaking book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that in order to outpace the machines that will replace workers in the future, workers need to gain skills that are uniquely human.  While it has become sport to denigrate a liberal education, futurists and employers have signaled that the skills 21st job creators cherish most in workers are the very ones that a liberal education provides:  The ability to communicate, think critically, be creative and collaborate.


One need only look to Silicon Valley, where employers are increasingly recruiting liberal arts majors for top jobs. A 2015 Forbes magazine article recounts the career trajectories of the CEO and editorial director for tech juggernaut Slack Technologies, holders of bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and theater, respectively. Far from anomalies, these tech leaders represent the sector’s increasing reliance on leaders who possess the ability to add a human touch to their data-based world.

Knowing this, I gave my friend a 21st century career pep talk that she could share with friends and family members who disapprove of her daughter’s college ambitions.

“Your daughter is learning how to do a job that can’t be replaced by robots and computers,” I told her.  “You should be proud! Do you think Lin-Manuel Miranda’s parents are embarrassed by his college and career choices?”

My friend felt better after our conversation, and I felt better knowing that I had helped to bolster the support network for a young woman who is using her college experiences to pursue her passion and learn skills that will help her thrive no matter where her career takes her.

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