10 Major Contributions From People With Liberal Arts Degrees

Well, my thoughts on education caused quite a ruckus. I recently wrote:

A good formal education, in my view, is one that emphasizes the liberal arts: literature, language, history, and the arts. Some knowledge of science and mathematics is helpful. But these are skills that are not likely to make you anything more than a successful or celebrated worker bee. The skills you learn in liberal arts teach you how to think.

Based on the responses, it looks like a lot of readers agreed with me. Others were upset, even outraged.

Reading this again, I have to admit my “worker bee” comment was terse and not entirely true. But, in my defense, I have to remind you that many of my most memorable ideas are terse and not entirely true.

If I were less interested in being provocative and more interested in being fair, I would have said this…

While it is possible to learn to think, write, and speak well as a math or science student, few of your required courses are structured to teach you those skills.

I would have also said: A liberal arts education hardly guarantees the mastery of these three essential skills. If I had to guess, I’d say 80% of those who graduate with a liberal arts degree cannot think, write, and speak effectively.

So there you have it. My apologia! Are you happy?

I want to explore this idea some more because—based on the big response we got from the article—I can see it is a topic about which many of our readers care.

And you should. For at least 20 years, the classic liberal arts education has been getting slammed. America, the slammers contend, doesn’t need any more college graduates with English and art and history degrees. It needs more engineers and computer scientists.

America is “falling behind” because its science and math classrooms are filling up with foreign-born students or outright foreigners. This view is widespread and earnestly believed in some corners of the country. There has been legislation passed and billions spent trying to “reverse” this trend.

In fact, the tidal wave of negativity—from policymakers and pundits alike—is forcing humanities and social science departments across the country to close.

For example, the University of Pittsburgh suspended German, classics, and religious studies. Emory University closed its visual arts program. And the State University of New York is threatening to close its French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater departments.

Meanwhile, if you take a deeper look into the issue, you’ll find some surprising facts…

Here’s one from a new study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. The study compared the earnings of more than 3 million college graduates.

It found people who majored in the humanities began their careers making less money than their counterparts with professional degrees. But by their mid-50s, these same people were making more money than their non-liberal art counterparts.

And that’s not all. In a study by the Annapolis Group, liberal arts graduates said they were more satisfied with their education than alumni from other types of institutions. They credited their colleges with preparing them for their careers and helping them enter both companies and graduate schools.

Finally, we learned as many as one-third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees. And many of the top CEOs in Silicon Valley emphatically stress their liberal arts degrees help them run better companies. For example, Steve Yi, the CEO of MediaAlpha, says his Harvard degree in East Asian studies helps him thrive in the ambiguity of tech, where nothing is black or white.

One of our readers, Henry A., was skeptical of my earlier claims. He actually asked me to dig up 10 contributions recently made to society by people with liberal arts degrees.

So, I put my team to the task. And actually, we found hundreds of successful writers, museum directors, journalists, media and advertising executives, film directors, actors, musicians, publishing executives, comedians, and social workers who were proud holders of a liberal arts degree. (Of course, I didn’t need to do a bunch of research to tell you this. But in any case…)

Here are some of the more surprising people we discovered and the major contributions they have made to our society.

  • Wikipedia: This knowledge-sharing site has allowed the entire globe to communicate its experience from a bottom-up perspective. Founder Larry Sanger received a B.A. in philosophy from Reed College in 1991. He also has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Ohio State University. “The purpose of liberal arts traditionalists like myself,” he wrote, “is something like developing the liberating potential of as much knowledge, wisdom, and intellectual skill (reading, writing, calculation, etc.) as possible.”
  • Disney: The entertainment empire has brought delight—and jobs—to people all across the globe. Former CEO Michael Eisner received a B.A. in English from Denison University. “I would much rather hire an executive who has taken courses in history and philosophy and language and art, and English and Russian literature, than somebody who has only studied a single element of one subject,” he said. “When my son wanted to go to undergraduate film school, I called George Lucas, who told him: Don’t go. Learning to make a movie is like learning to drive. Anybody can learn to drive. It’s where you drive that counts.”
  • YouTube: The video sharing platform has changed everything from high school to government. Founder Chad Hurley received a B.A. in fine art from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1999. After graduation, he sent a letter to PayPal offering to creatively design their logo. He was hired as one of their first employees. Three years later, he left to start YouTube.
  • Apple: This $700 billion company has revolutionized the human experience. Founder Steve Jobs enrolled in creative humanities classes at Reed College. Although he dropped out, he continued to audit classes and famously credited his liberal arts education with defining Apple. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”
  • Flickr: More than 87 million people use this photo-sharing site to express themselves artistically, scour historic archives, connect with friends, educate each other, and more. Founder Stewart Butterfield received a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Victoria in 1996 before going on to receive a master’s in philosophy from the University of Cambridge in 1998. He addressed a group of University of Victoria students by saying, “I think if you have a good background in what it is to be human, an understanding of life, culture, and society, it gives you a good perspective on starting a business, instead of an education purely in business. You can always pick up how to read a balance sheet and how to figure out profit and loss, but it’s harder to pick up the other stuff on the fly.” Incidentally, his Flickr co-founder, Caterina Fake, earned a B.A. in English from Vassar.
  • Politico: This political newspaper broke the traditional journalism mold by prioritizing its digital content when most publications were still favoring print. Founder and Editor-in-Chief John F. Harris received a B.A. in American history from Carleton College in 1985. His interest in journalism began with the student newspaper during his freshman year.
  • The Centers for Disease Control: The leading public health institute of the U.S. is responsible for preventing everything from foodborne illnesses to biological warfare. The current CDC director, Tom Frieden, earned a B.A. in philosophy from Oberlin College. A previous CDC director, Jeffrey Koplan, earned a B.A. in English from Yale.
  • Fidelity Investments: This financial services corporation is one of the largest mutual fund groups in the world. Chief Executive Officer Abigail Johnson received a B.A. in art history from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1984.
  • BitTorrent: This protocol has allowed for sharing of vast amounts of data over the Internet. Founder Ashwin Navin received a dual degree in government and economics from Claremont McKenna College in 1999. Other notable alumni of Claremont McKenna include actor Robin Williams and Governor Steve Bullock (Montana, 2012-present).
  • PayPal: Founder Peter Thiel received a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford in 1989. He has spoken repeatedly about how reading French philosopher René Girard’s work dramatically affected his career. He has also spoken widely on the relationship between religion, philosophy, and technology.

Look, my intention with this isn’t to start tallying: Liberal arts versus non, and who contributed what.

The point is, regardless of what a person chooses as his “major” in college—and regardless of what he chooses to do for a living—getting to the top of any business or profession requires these fundamental skills: thinking, writing, and speaking well.

Even the Bill Gates types—who were trained in math and science and proponents of math and science—became what they became not because of their technical skills (Gates is a perfect example). But by their capacity to analyze problems, identify opportunities, conceive of solutions, and then persuade others—through writing and speaking—to follow them.