Strum: In defense of a liberal arts degree

Obama’s comment that art history degrees won’t create jobs was callous.

Lora Strum

Lora StrumOn Jan. 30, President Obama told Wisconsin citizens, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Perhaps offending liberal arts majors everywhere with his glib remark will inspire Obama to hire a better speechwriter – one of those liberal arts majors he nonchalantly snubbed with his comment.

At Temple, 5,512 students in the Class of 2013 pursued liberal arts degrees and another 10,302 students studied outside of the science, technology, engineering or math fields. To his credit, the president did apologize to these 15,814 future teachers, dancers, lawyers, sociologists or writers. He humbly offered that art history – and liberal arts by association – was a favorite subject of his in high school.

However, the liberal arts majors of the world know that actions speak louder than words.

One of Obama’s first actions as president was to increase funding for Science Technology Engineering and Math education, giving $3 billion to the STEM fields as a part of his “Educate to Innovate” initiative. The initiative is part of a broader mission to raise a generation of engineers, scientists and mathematicians to resuscitate America’s economy.

“I personally applaud the president’s response to national corporations, defense contractors and even public interest agencies who need to hire from our population,” said Jamie Bracey, director of STEM Education, Outreach and Research at Temple. “Less than 10 percent of America’s workforce is qualified in STEM-related fields, but they generate nearly half the nation’s wealth.”

Though the economy demands a densely populated proletariat of STEM specialists, there is no definitive research that job security is better for a STEM major than for a liberal arts major. In fact, the American Association of Colleges and Universities released data that among workers in top-earning years, liberal arts majors make $2,000 more than STEM majors.

While STEM is “in” right now, liberal arts shouldn’t be “out.” Obama should make it his mission to recognize each major’s unique merit, even in passing moments of his speeches.

“Everybody wants their kids to become an engineer or doctor so that they can cure cancer or build prosthetic limbs, regardless of what their children may or may not want to do,” freshman music major Thomas Braun said. “It’s the reason why the Obama Administration has pumped so much funding into those programs.”

The president is not the only one making unnecessary comparisons of the success rates of vastly differing majors. Temple’s own emphasis on STEM can make being a liberal arts major a difficult task. The new Science Education and Research Center is slowly eclipsing Gladfelter and Anderson halls as construction teams make progress this academic year. There is no equivalent program to the successful and fantastic STEM program that aims to matriculate promising high school students into higher education within those STEM majors.

“I do not believe there is equal importance in each major [at Temple],” Braun said. “Boyer [College of Music and Dance] attracts people to Temple, but our facilities do not. Our practice rooms are not plentiful enough. The temperature in the building makes it uncomfortable to be in. You would think you would put money where [many] students are.”

STEM fields are important – they are responsible for creating the new iPhone or chemical compound found in acne cream or developments in medicine. But do these supposed fields of endless job opportunities and six-figure salaries mean non-STEM students should switch majors? Why are numbers and beakers chafing against treble clefs and French dictionaries as students compare two different majors as if they were homogenous?

“I resist any attempt to segregate STEM from liberal arts,” Bracey said. “It’s not an issue of which college major is better.”

Does Obama know this? Does the student body know this? Does society know this? In attempts to make money, have we become sycophants eager for the next most profitable trend? We shouldn’t be pressed to put aside our passions in pursuit of more cushioned salaries or in the name of advancing the country at large.

“Music is what drives me,” Braun said. “It is my life and passion. There is a deep connection for me with music on an emotional level. It makes me happy. To me, I’d rather be happy and penniless than rich and burnt out or unhappy.”

Temple’s students can play their own part in putting an end to major-shaming by staying true to their career aspirations. Whether he or she writes a book or a formula, they’re pursuing a passion, and that is what’s meaningful.

Lora Strum can be reached at

1 Comment

  1. I am a liberal arts student, and I agree with Obama. I am not living in a blindfold- I acknowledge that an engineering degree or Computer science degree would probably be more helpful in the modern jobs market- but I also know why I am pursuing such a degree, and that is because it is what I am interested in and because I have a generous financial aid package that allows me to go through college without requiring me to sell my soul in loans. That said, if I was not in this situation, and rather had to pay full tuition (which is unaffordable, let’s be honest) I would certainly choose a major with more focussed employment prospects. Its not that Liberal Arts is useless, but rather that we live in reality where we should not be telling those who can barely afford tuition to just ‘do what you love’ when what they love is not realistic enough to pay off their loans and create a life for themselves.

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