“When we think about likely career paths that our students will take, the life paths, the vast majority of them will go through multiple jobs, life and career directions,” says Gregory Call, dean of the faculty at Amherst College in Massachusetts, a top-ranking US liberal arts college. “A liberal arts education gives students exposure to a broad range of fields. They learn how to work both independently and in groups, how to write well, how to analyse arguments. This should be better preparation for that kind of multiple career path.”
But a liberal arts degree is also good for society, he believes. “The broader benefit is preparing educated citizens, people who will take an active part in society, who will be intelligent voters, who can read a newspaper, understand the issues and be part of an educated electorate.”
The financial crisis has prompted some in the US to argue that, in tough times, education should prepare people for their first job out of college. Oxtoby calls this “misguided”.
“People talk about China and India preparing all these scientists and engineers. They say, ‘Let’s get back to basics, let’s just prepare people for a particular job.’
“But one of the things we’ve learned in this latest crisis is that no job is secure. What you really need is to be flexible. You may need to move into a job that you haven’t had before or that didn’t exist when you graduated from college. For me, this is a strong argument for a liberal arts education.”
The irony is that while the numbers majoring in vocational subjects in the US grow, other countries are looking to learn from its liberal arts programmes.
“I’ve spent time in Hong Kong, Singapore and China,” Oxtoby says. “Each place is recognising that narrow professional training goes a certain distance, but in terms of really preparing innovative people who will be the entrepreneurs of the future and who will create whole new enterprises, a broader education has tremendous value. They are looking at the American model.”
Liberal arts education in the US has also come under attack for being “elitist”. It certainly can be pricey. The small, private Sarah Lawrence College in New York is reputedly America’s most expensive college, with fees of $56,934 (£36,508) a year. It has a student-to-faculty ratio of nine to one. However, 61 per cent of its undergraduates receive some form of financial aid.