Liberal Arts – Revenge of an irrelevant degree 

Years ago, brilliant students were selected and sometimes even forced to go into the sciences. They would be doctors and engineers and pilots after graduation. At worst, they could be teachers or draughts men. The science student was often the toast of the student population. In some universities, some fickle-minded girls (not in Legon though) found it ‘romantically strategic’ to befriend a would-be doctor than settle for the winding, hazy-mapped academic journey of the Philosophy graduate.


Career dreamers

Those in the liberal arts didn’t appear to have a definite career destination after graduation. Would they be philosophers, sociologists or anthropologists? It was even said that apart from gynecologists, other professions that ended with the suffix ‘logist,’ particularly those in the liberal arts, were not quite worth the fret and the weariness that a regular academic enterprise demands of the human soul. That also meant that a zoologist, an epidemiologist or an entomologist had brighter prospects than the Archaeology or Master of Fine Arts graduate from a good university.

Those who couldn’t make the science grade found adequate compensation in finance and accountancy. An accountant had juicier job prospects than the classical history graduate. While they may be civilised, even if classically, the employment market is too topsy-turvy and dynamic for professionals whose only advantages are civility and sincere smiles.

Professionals who have made great strides in the world of work are often ruthlessly malleable and dangerously well-connected. They know how to work the figures and get round protocols to land the juiciest procurement contracts. Employment, these days, involves spinning, lobbying, strategic manipulation and sometimes naked and bleeding lies by those who are unashamed to be called opportunists and job hoppers. They are often admired as aggressive goal-getters and ambitious career builders.


Seven liberal arts

Until recently, Law was the heaven of the liberal arts graduate. The few lucky and brainy fellows who ventured into the learned profession individuated themselves. These days, law seems to be everybody’s heaven, too, and many a professional wanderer has made it a haven indeed, experimenting with other professional interests before trying their tired brains at such a noble enterprise. Young law graduates are failing basic examinations in droves. With newly accredited private universities dishing out law degrees to many a simpleton, the learned profession may soon join the league of fun degrees.

When you couldn’t make the law grade at our traditional universities, you joined the chockablock lectures of the liberal arts discipline (the trivium and the quadrivium subjects). In the medieval university, the seven liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium) and geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium).


At university, students who frequented the registry to change their courses were usually those reading liberal arts. Often, all they wanted was to swap one pure liberal arts subject with anything that could be thought of as a vocation. When they didn’t succeed, they settled for Linguistics and Swahili. They would eventually major in the former because Tanzania is the last place they want to build a career. What is the future of the Linguistics major? You were lucky when your parents were not university educated, because they were just thrilled at the prospect of making a graduate out of their native son. They didn’t care much what their son studied. A graduate is a graduate.


Transferrable skills

In the world of work, however, it matters what you spent money to study for four years in university. The liberal arts graduate was not considered a good fit for technical and managerial roles in industry. When they found one, they would quickly try their hands at industry professional courses to justify their employment and solidify their positions.  The CV of the liberal arts graduate would usually emphasise transferable skills instead of real technical know-how. Employers are interested in their bottom line; they don’t have the luxury to engage in transfer of skills and cross-pollination of ‘liberal’ ideas.

Well, times have changed. A study of 225 employers by the Millennial Branding and Experience Inc. in the USA found out “Thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors.” Only 18 percent of employers said they were recruiting finance and accounting majors.

According to founder, Dan Schawbel, “The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking need to become good communicators in order to graduate with a liberal arts degree. Companies are looking for soft skills over hard skills now because hard skills can be learned, while soft skills need to be developed.” With some entrepreneurial ability, the liberal arts graduate is competitive to succeed in many professional callings.

Liberal arts college

In Ghana, there are fine examples of liberal arts graduates who are excelling at top positions in the manufacturing industry. The liberal arts discipline schools us in critical thinking and problem analysis, and is structured to develop the leadership potential of the arts person. In the end, the liberal arts graduate may have traversed different knowledge fields to afford him a broader understanding of the world around him. They do make better organisational leaders than accountants, doctors and civil engineers.

We are behind in science, engineering and technological innovation, but without a good liberal arts foundation, our leadership problems would impoverish our continent. Patrick Awuah, former Microsoft employee and President of Ashesi University, believes that a liberal arts education is critical to forming true leaders. He had seen the annual revenues of Microsoft grow larger than the GDP of Ghana.  He is advocating for a liberal arts college in every country in Africa as the surest way to build the leadership skills we need.

The liberal arts graduate faces a lot of challenges and would usually suffer the ‘irrelevant course’ discrimination in competitive employment. The Millennial Branding survey also found that while 29% of employers were prepared to absorb any graduate who had entrepreneurial experience, 69% insisted that relevant courses would determine a candidate’s suitability. It perhaps not surprising that liberal arts entrepreneurs do not usually make it to the list of the richest people in Ghana. They may have been too liberal with their money while immersing themselves in fat books on philosophy and poetry.


Tissues of the Issues

…with Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin

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