Free to choose, I chose liberal arts

Published Jun. 7, 2012

To the college-bound high school seniors graduating this week:

If you're anything like me when I was 18, graduation means throwing off the shackles of high school for the freedom of a university education. The promise of student unions, 50-minute classes and free alcohol (particularly for the fraternity- and sorority-minded among you) was a sunny proposition after four years of waking up before sunrise every day for seven hours of mind-numbing routine.

In my 13 years of public schooling, I became convinced that the primary goal of a public education was not to educate but to slowly expose you to the concept of freedom. In elementary school I was watched with the same vigilance the FBI applies to suspected terrorists. In middle school I got a locker and not much else. And in high school I was finally granted some control over what I learned, but soon realized that no 90-minute class, no matter how interesting, could make up for the fact that it was 90 minutes long and that there were four of them.

But college — hand-picked schedules, plentiful electives, intellectual freedom — you can get used to that.

I have some bad news. You won't find complete freedom in college.

While every component of your education up to this point has bombarded you with rules, college will bombard you with expectations. And I'm not talking about your parents' lectures on responsibility. This is more subtle. It comes in the form of business certificate programs, career services departments and the thousands (no joke) of well-intentioned adults who will ask you, "So what do you plan to do with your classics major?"

Whether you realize it now or not, college is a commodity in disguise. The most practical among you probably have already admitted that, first and foremost, you're paying for the degree. It's a ticket to the professional world and a comfortable salary — maybe not in this job market, but eventually. You have an abundance of professional schools to choose from — business, engineering, even journalism (for the masochists). On the whole, higher education has become a pre-professional pursuit.

That might not come as a shock to you. But for generations of students, college consisted of an education in the liberal arts, and the liberal arts are an endangered species. In 1971, 7.6 percent of all bachelor's degrees handed out were in English. In 2009, it was 3.5 percent. Meanwhile, business degrees jumped from 13.7 percent of all bachelor's degrees to 21.7 percent. Gov. Rick Scott has said plainly that he will support the majors that lead to jobs, end of story.

For those of you dead set on business or medicine, this is good news. You have a future you can see. But for those of you unsure about your future profession, who have a desire to look into other fields, it can be discouraging. The idea of a university education as I understood it was not to be trained in a vocation but to open yourself up to unfamiliar ideas. Lord knows it's the only four years of your life that you'll have an excuse to do that.

Some recent graduates I know took one look at the job market and cursed all those comparative literature classes they took for fun. But I would argue that very few curious people ever actually wasted their time by studying theology or history or philosophy. You will obtain a "skill set" — the heightened capacity to reason, to think and to argue. And despite what some would have you believe, that can only help you in the "real world."

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A desire to spark innovation and entrepreneurship is penetrating the curriculum at some major universities — and the world's most famous entrepreneurs are men and women of ideas. A liberal arts education will expose you to ideas that semesters spent only in computer programming classes might not. One day you might find a liberal arts education useful when you discover the opportunity to create a job for yourself.

Every person who addresses high school graduates is required to offer some piece of advice, no matter how contrived. So here's mine: If it appeals to you, take a chance on the liberal arts. It won't be easy, but it might be the closest approximation to freedom you ever find.

And it will beat the hell out of high school.

Andy Thomason, a summer intern at the Times, is the 2012 Pittman Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He can be reached at