By Giana Pollock

There is a popular idea that students should be attending college for practical reasons. Students do the Aviation program to go straight into the field of aviation. Others major in Nursing to get a nursing job right out of college. But what about liberal arts and English majors? These majors are commonly considered not practical for college. Naomi Arenberg from WKKL and the Arts and Communication Department, Rebecca Griffin from the Department of Language and Literature, and Cathy McCarron, Dean of Arts, Humanities and Adult Education suggest that, unlike these common ideas, liberal arts is practical.

“Vocational training can lead directly to employment, yes, but the best mechanics, chefs, carpenters, farmers or other hands-on workers are creative problem solvers,” said Arenberg. “A liberal arts education supports creative thinking and creative problem-solving skills.”

Such skills that are highly desired by all employers, which can actually make liberal arts and English the smart way to go.

“The challenge is that a liberal arts education can lead in many post-graduate directions; whereas a vocational education tends to lead to a specific field soon after graduation,” said Arenberg. “Who wouldn’t want a well-paying job as soon as the ink on the diploma has dried?  Most of us want the sense of security that brings.”

Arenberg also goes on to add her own life experience, explaining that some of the best employees she’s encountered majored in liberal arts and English.

“Some of the medical doctors I most trust majored in English,” said Arenberg. “A liberal arts degree provides a pathway to wherever you want to go. A liberal arts degree is not an end point. It can be a crossroad.”

Griffin adds to this, saying, “I do think that the English major has an unfair reputation. English majors are excellent writers, critical thinkers, and analysts. They know about appealing to specific audiences. Reading develops empathy and an understanding of diverse cultures apart from your own. These are all skills that are vital to succeeding in today’s world. English majors work in publishing, teaching, the law, and politics. They work for nonprofits and news organizations. They work in advertising, public relations, and business. Their skills are adaptable and desirable. Although English majors may not make as much money right out of college as those who major in, say, business, the pay for English majors does catch up over time.”

This idea of liberal arts or English not being practical majors in college has actually been around for a while, something Arenberg and Griffin agree on.

“There’s a stronger emphasis on practical education now than when I was in high school or college,” said Arenberg. “I long for a balance where society values both the academic and the practical, which, by the way, are hardly mutually exclusive.”

The practicality push “has been around for as long as I can remember,” said Griffin. “We’re always trying to get the word out that majoring in English is a good idea. But it’s hard to overcome misconceptions, so we are constantly retooling this message to see if we can reach more interested students.”

McCarron said that Cape Cod Community College (4C’s) has specifically created classes that, no matter what they are about, are giving students the critical thinking skills they need.

“Faculty often show how what they are learning in class – from learning how to write a strong, clear sentence to completing a complex painting – has applicability in the real world,” said McCarron.

McCarron quotted a New York Times Article, called “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure,” by David Deming: “According to a 2018 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the three attributes of college graduates that employers considered most important were written communication, problem-solving and the ability to work in a team” (Deming). “Our faculty are committed to helping students develop these skills,” said McCarron.

Liberal arts seems to have a more practical aspect to it, but what about with Covid? Is remote and online learning taking away from the practicality? Arenberg said it definitely is.

“Remote learning significantly alters the presentation of hands-on courses, such as studio art, lab science, and theater set design,” said Arenberg. “In that ‘real’ world many jobs depend on collaboration among employees. Virtual collaboration among students can’t provide as rich an experience as in-person collaboration in the classroom.”

Interestingly, Griffin and McCarron disagree completely with Arenberg, saying that remote and online learning is the real world.

“I’ve actually been surprised at how little Covid has affected what we do in the classroom,” said Griffin. “If anything, doing things like putting out the Sea Change remotely, gives students experience working in a setting where not everyone is in the same room. This is very much like what people working in publishing, journalism, law, or business experience everyday—especially now.”

“I think Covid is teaching us a lot about how we can prepare ourselves and our students for the 21st Century,” said McCarron. “Students who participate in class in their Zoom classrooms are practicing real world skills needed in the workforce. Similarly, businesses are learning how to switch many of their practices to remote operations. Because of that, it may be a little more difficult to find internship placements in the short-term, but as businesses figure out how to move more operations online, they will need students who know how to work online as well. When we have a widespread vaccine, students who have strong in-person and technology-enabled remote skills will be in an excellent position to take advantage of workplace opportunities.”

Liberal arts and English majors deserve the recognition they work hard for, as suggested by Griffin, McCarron and Arenberg.

“Being an English major is a practical decision,” said Griffin. “Just because a job title is not attached to a major doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get a job later. I wouldn’t let that misconception scare you away.”

McCarron proposes “opening the definition” of practicality in college. “The 4C’s mantra is ‘powerful futures start here,’” said McCarron. “I firmly believe that 4C’s students are beginning their powerful futures by developing a range of skills that will prepare them for their academic, personal, and professional lives.”

Arenberg adds to this, hoping that one day everyone who has worked for their education is accepted in the same way.

“Societal values and norms shape our education system,” said Arenberg. “I wonder whether, as a society, we’re hyper-focused on short-term goals, on the must-get-the-job-now. Of course, each of us must earn a living. As a society, however, we need to value education in the broadest sense, not simply as the means to an end, but as a pathway to a satisfying life. We should value and educate for every job, no matter how menial it seems. My own story — I might have become a photographer, except that, as a student, I couldn’t afford a camera.”