Liberal arts leaves options open

When she graduated from Yale in 2000, Liz Thorpe, who left with a double major in American studies and history of art, never imagined she would be the wholesale director for a cheese shop in New York City.

“I thought I would be working for some sort of cool Internet firm,” she said.

While working with cheese is more complicated and impressive than it sounds — Thorpe deals with 150 restaurants around the world — her change in career path is indicative of the effect of the uniquely American approach to higher learning: the liberal arts education. Whereas many other countries tend to place their students on a rigid track from high school onward, many American universities leave the field wide open, letting students choose from a staggering variety of majors before setting them loose on the world. As a result, life paths can sometimes diverge in unexpected ways.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said a liberal arts education helps students develop skills such as being able to think critically, being able to communicate precisely, and being able to work with others cooperatively.

“It is an education that prepares them for anything they might do after college,” he said.

After being rejected by Yale’s American studies doctorate program, to which she applied immediately after graduating, Thorpe went to work for an Internet company. It was the middle of the high-tech boom, but Thorpe said she did not catch any of the excitement.

“I was really bored and unhappy,” she said. “I thought I might go back to school.”

She moved from corporate job to corporate job before “randomly” going to Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village to ask for a position.

Although it might seem like an art history diploma would not impress employers looking for business skills, Thorpe said she never felt hampered by her lack of credentials.

“The fact that I wasn’t an econ major had no bearing on anything in my experience,” she said. “It mattered a lot that I went to Yale University.”

Not every student winds up in a wildly different career by chance, however. Some students said they make the choice consciously.

Christie Yang ’06 is a history of art major who plans to attend law school when she leaves Yale. She said the purpose of a liberal arts education is to “expand your horizons,” and that she feels no less prepared than an English or political science major heading off to law school.

“The point of liberal arts education is to explore what you want,” she said. “It gives you a solid basis and you can apply it to any career — except engineering.”

Conversely, Ben Brogadir ’07 is part of a streaming horde of economics majors pursuing an internship or post-college job in investment banking. He said it seemed to be “the norm” in his major.

Brogadir faces tough competition from more business-centered schools, but he said Yale’s broader focus made for a better experience.

“I think the point of a liberal arts college is to give you a well-rounded, diverse education instead of a pre-professional one,” he said.

Eleanor Coufos, who works at Columbia University’s Career Service Center, said she would never dissuade a student like Thorpe from applying to jobs outside her major.

“We tell students that a Columbia College student can do anything,” she said.

But some career counselors believe a liberal arts degree contains limitations. Jerry Houser, who worked at the University of Southern California for 19 years and is now head of the career center at California Institute of Technology, said he tries to be realistic with his students.

“It’s not totally wide-open,” he said. “If you graduate with English and want to go into science, you’re going to have to backtrack a little.”

The term “liberal arts” first came up during the Middle Ages, American studies professor Matthew Jacobson said. Although the original liberal arts included only seven subjects — grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy — Jacobson said he thinks “it’s been ages” since anyone in this country has actually studied exactly those subjects as part of a liberal arts education.

Jane Levin, head of Directed Studies, a yearlong freshman program in the humanities, said the modern idea of liberal arts began in the 19th century, when then-Harvard president Charles Eliot claimed students should be able to study whatever they want. She said liberal arts was important because it drew connections to the past.

“Liberal arts education, reading works of literature, gives you the opportunity to read writers writing about situations that we encounter all the time in our life and asking us to reflect on them,” Levin said.

Levin suggested that Directed Studies could be seen as typical of a classic liberal arts education.

Andrew Rohrbach ’09, who is in the program, said that, although there is more to liberal arts than Directed Studies, the program offered him a good chance to understand the fundamentals of our society.

But Jacobson said he thinks liberal arts education may be losing its premiere status in America.

“It holds a powerful place as a vague ideal in our culture, but has lost ground,” he said, adding that many students prefer a more rigid path.

Yang echoed this claim, saying that her sister, who is currently a senior in high school, does not approve of the liberal arts, which has dissuaded her from applying to Yale. Her brother is also enrolled at USC’s more career-centered film school.

“I know it’s what they want, but I find it limiting,” she said.

Professor Anthony Kronman LAW ’75, former dean of the Yale Law School, said the problem with liberal arts education lies in its evolution over the past 40 years. In the past 40 years, he said, the humanities have been gripped by a “culture of political correctness” that has made it difficult for liberal arts professors and students to address the question of life’s meaning with “authority and rigor.”

Whatever the disagreement over the value of a liberal arts education on the intellect, most seemed to agree that it has major value in the job market.

“Liberal arts gives you the ticket to the game,” Houser said. “They want to see that college degree.”

And other countries may be following suit, Salovey said. For example, Peking University, the site of the Yale-in-Peking program, offers an honors program called Yunpei that is focused on the liberal arts. Salovey said that when other Chinese university leaders have visited Yale over the past two summers, they have expressed interest in the idea of a Western liberal arts education.

“There’s a very strong interest among some of those Chinese university leaders in moving away from a vocationally focused, technical education,” he said.

Even though she now works far outside her field of study, Thorpe said she valued her time at Yale.

“I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing without the type of education I had,” Thorpe said. “I think it was essential.”

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