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Playing the Long Game

Can immersing yourself in the study of philosophy or a foreign language prepare you for a successful career? Absolutely, says Peter Shoemaker, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Seton Hall magazine editor Pegeen Hopkins spoke with the dean recently to learn more about the advantages of studying the liberal arts.

What do you say to those who think liberal arts graduates do not make as much as money as their peers?

Numerous studies from the American Association of College and Universities show that while liberal arts students do not make as much money right out of college, by the time they are in their 50s, they are earning more than those who pursue professional degrees, with the exception of students who go into the sciences. And the science students earn even more if they learn soft skills. Being able to analyze situations critically, to read and write well, and to interact effectively with others are all critical these days.

Is studying the liberal arts practical?

Absolutely! Students will have two to four different careers before they retire. So while it might seem practical to learn a specialized skill today, we do not know what the skills of the future will be. Having “translatable skills” (mathematics, verbal and analytical skills) prepares someone to adapt to changes in the economy and job market. Someone who studied computer science 30 years ago may have studied Fortran, which no one cares about now. It is important to adapt as change comes, and liberal arts students are well equipped to do that.

Beyond professional skills, in what ways might a liberal arts degree enrich life as a whole?

As a Catholic university, we want students to not only have fulfilling careers, but also fulfilling lives. A liberal arts education encourages students to learn how to live the good life and determine what that looks like. How do you contribute to the world or your community? How can you appreciate what is beautiful? What does it mean to raise a family? A liberal arts education encourages students to embrace a more ambitious vision of what happiness is.

How do we provide practical experience at Seton Hall?

All the things you do at Seton Hall should help round you out as an individual. Employers don’t only look at what your major is, but also what is in your portfolio. As a French professor, I tell students it is not useless to study French. You could be a French major, complete an internship to gain career experience, and you also take several courses in accounting. That would give you a constellation of skills that make you a highly competitive job applicant. At Seton Hall, we advise students how to best develop their complete portfolios.  This spring, we are introducing a business boot camp in the College of Arts and Sciences to help students refine skills like interviewing and giving business presentations, and to provide a better understanding of how a budget is developed. The liberal arts help us ask questions about what we are doing and why in the context of human values. This can play out in medical ethics and in the ways that technology shifts what it means to communicate or to even be human. To adjust appropriately, we need people who understand history and who are critical thinkers. We also need leaders who think about the long game rather than the short game and who have a broad conception of what it means to be a successful nation. A good political leader understands how to analyze issues from different points of view and see how all the elements (science, economics, human nature, etc.) connect. That is what a liberal arts education teaches so well. In his book The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand makes an analogy, borrowed from The Wizard of Oz, about what makes an education “liberal.” A liberal arts major, he writes, learns to pay attention to the “man behind the curtain” — looking at what is going on behind the scenes, figuring out how things work.

By Pegeen Hopkins

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