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Thomas Hellie: Liberal arts education never more valuable

Marcus Larson/News-Register file photo
Marcus Larson/News-Register file photo

These are the last days of my final year as president of Linfield College. I am about to retire.

But I haven’t stopped thinking, and at times worrying, about the future of American higher education. In particular, I worry about the public attitude toward liberal arts education.

Some people believe “liberal arts” refers to a political perspective, as in liberal politics. Others think it refers solely to the arts and humanities, as in painting or literature.

Both interpretations are inaccurate. Because of how these words are currently used in public discourse, some of us have wondered if we should refer instead to “arts and sciences.” In fact, science and math have been cornerstone subjects in the liberal arts since the time of Aristotle.

Regardless, it is true that liberal arts indicates a way of thinking: analysis based on logic, proof, scientific experiment, and fact-based theories. I believe liberal arts education remains vitally important for our future — politically because of its emphasis on verifiable facts; socially because the study of humanities fosters an ability to empathize with others; and economically because liberal arts graduates have developed the capacity to learn new concepts throughout their lifetimes.
I majored in theater. My father, a farmer who never attended college, paid most of my tuition.

Guest Writer

After more than 12 years as president of Linfield College, Thomas Hellie will retire July 1.Prior to coming to Linfield, he served as president of the James S. Kemper Foundation in Chicago. Although he and his wife are moving to Portland, they plan to spend many future hours in the tasting rooms of Yamhill County wineries.

“Can’t you find something practical to study?” he asked. Well, theater did turn out to be practical.

In dramatic literature classes, I learned how to read and write effectively. Onstage, I learned how to communicate to groups of people. Backstage, I learned about teamwork and the need to depend on others. As a stage director, I learned how to interpret a text, create and articulate a vision, identify the strengths of my actors, and convince the entire group to achieve our goals in a limited period of time.

It all began because I was fascinated by an impractical subject. But in fact, the skills I developed were fundamental to my careers as a professor, an international study administrator, a corporate foundation executive, and eventually a college president.

I purposely refer to careers — not a single career — because I’ve had a series of jobs and professions.

That’s not unusual. In fact, most members of Linfield’s class of 2018 will someday find themselves in professions that haven’t even been invented yet. Our graduates will succeed because they have discovered how to learn.

We have all heard about the economic value of STEM majors, referring to science, technology, engineering and math.

These subjects are, of course, taught at many liberal arts colleges. But even in the arts and humanities, there is great economic value.

According to a Forbes Magazine article on last year’s college graduates, those majoring in the arts, humanities and English were actually less likely to be underemployed than those majoring in such practical disciplines as law enforcement or business. (“Underemployed,” in this case, was defined as initially accepting jobs that would not have required a college degree.)

The author, Derek Newton, wrote, “For every cliché of a barista or bartender with a liberal arts degree, there were 10 with a degree in business.” The majors with the fewest underemployed graduates, according to the study Newton cited, were “foreign languages, literature and linguistics.”

In 2015, humanities majors were 20 percent more likely to be employed than the national average. In fact, the majority of new hires in Silicon Valley that year were in liberal arts fields, not in engineering or computer science.

A 2013 survey of American employers showed 80 percent sought to hire employees with a liberal arts background. Why? Because they are the bridge between the technicians and the end users.

Shortly before he died, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” And software billionaire Vivek Ranadivé, who now owns the Sacramento Kings, wrote, “The people who succeed in more expensive labor markets like the U.S. will be those who think creatively and generate the ideas that will propel economic growth. Such skills are best fostered in a liberal arts environment.”

I could go on with more expert statements and facts — that’s what we liberal arts majors do, after all — but the bottom line is this: Liberal arts education is more important now than it has ever been. Perhaps that’s the reason our major global economic competitor, China, has created a number of liberal arts universities.

In the United States, we are shortsighted if we view education merely as a means to the first job; it must be that, but it must also be preparation for a lifetime of jobs and a lifetime of service, citizenship and leadership.

America’s liberal arts colleges, including the very fine one in McMinnville, are crucial to America’s future.

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