education

Are Liberal Arts Educations Worth It Anymore?

I love playing pool, and whenever I see an empty table, I rack em’ up and start shooting. The last time this happened was during a sunny October weekend in Los Angeles. As I sank shots, my two friends – we were having a mini college reunion — stood a few feet away admiring an impressive selection of video game consoles: everything from Atari 2600 to PS4, all of them attached to a massive flat-panel TV. The ‘game room’ was full of other fun distractions: guitars, a drum set, and even a large collection of board games.

I felt a little bewildered. The whole building was full of similar amenities: coolers stuffed with complimentary snacks and drinks, a gourmet dining hall, and comfortable seating areas where people could socialize. Heck, even the bathrooms were stocked peppermints and mouth wash.

Being Los Angeles, you’d think my friends and I had made it into some exclusive club, the kind where bouncers make you wait for hours before getting inside. But no, to figure out where we were, all you would have to do is read what was printed on the pool table’s green felt:

Google L.A. 

Yep, one of my college buddies was giving me and another friend a tour of where he had worked since we graduated college in 2008. 

After seeing all those perks first hand, I must admit that for a moment I doubted whether earning a bachelor’s in East Asian Studies and a master’s in Teaching had been the right decision for my college education. Are liberal arts educations worth it anymore when it seems that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) careers offer the highest salaries and perks?

After thinking it over, I came to the realization that a liberal arts education is still worth it. Allow me to convince you why. 

STEM Isn’t for Everyone

Think back to when you were in elementary school. What were your favorite subjects? Are the same subjects your favorites now? Probably not.

Children and adolescents’ interests change over time. And as our interests and passions are such personal things, forcing STEM upon students doesn’t work. When I was a teacher, we tried to have the school take part in the Hour of Code. Long story short: it backfired. A lot of students just weren’t into it. 

If you also fall into the ‘just weren’t into it’ category, too, that STEM isn’t your cup of tea, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t force yourself to commit to a college major or career path that, even though you may be smart enough to succeed at it, you’d be miserable doing it for the rest of your life.

When it comes to selecting a college major and career, you shouldn’t ask yourself “What are my talents?” You should ask yourself “Which of my talents am I committed to improving?” You may not know right away, and that’s fine. It took me years to realize that I no matter what I studied or what job I did, I performed my best when work involved improving my skills as a writer.

If your passion and drive point towards liberal arts, then go for it. 

What You Gain From Liberal Arts Isn’t What You Learn in Class

Full disclosure: I’ve forgotten most of the actual content I learned in my college liberal arts classes. Gone are the Chinese dynasties, the antebellum South, etc. But sitting here now, typing these words, I am using my education in a way most 18-22-year-olds don’t recognize.

A liberal arts education provides you an extremely flexible skillset, one that employers still value highly in applicants. Yes, you need specific knowledge and skills to succeed in any career, but these same careers will also demand that you ‘upgrade’ your knowledge and skills over time. A liberal arts education prepares you to do just that.

There is one quote that perfectly explains just why a broad, liberal arts education is still so important. It was coined by an American who wore many hats throughout his career: naval officer, philosopher, inventor, engineer, and science fiction author.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

-Robert A. Heinlein

Final Thoughts

Back to Google L.A. The three of us were the employee lounge, sitting in soft swivel chairs that looked right out of the bridge of the starship Enterprise. My friend was describing common interview questions Google asks applicants. I tried answering one but promptly shut my mouth after realizing that I had no idea what I was talking about. As my other friend took a shot at the same question, I studied the art on the walls and the nearby conference rooms; each room bore the name of a famous film set in L.A. I realized that even at Google, home of the world’s STEM titans, they still admire and respect the work performed by those who pursued liberal arts and other creative endeavors.

So, if Google believes that liberal arts are still worth it, maybe we all should believe that, too.

Exploring Non-Traditional Colleges

What if your child isn’t a traditional learner? What if following the path of every other college freshman turns them off? Not to worry, there are colleges that cater to the needs of students who want a more independent academic experience.

St. John’s College with campuses in both Annapolis and Santa Fe offers only one major, Liberal Arts. They base the curriculum on a “Great Books Program” and they have few tests and lots of class discussions. The website boasts that it grants one of the most affordable tuitions at $35,000 per year.

How about Hampshire College, a member of the Five College Consortium including Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts. At Hampshire there are no grades and the students can design their own concentrations of study (no majors either). It’s a great choice for creative, self-directed students.

Antioch College (Yellow Springs, Ohio) requires that the students hold down “full-time co-op jobs” switching between work and study. This can be great for students who need to support themselves and still wish to get a college degree.

College of the Ozarks is another college that requires the students to work. This time in exchange for tuition. The entire campus is run on solar power and 30% of their cafeteria food is grown on campus. It’s a liberal arts college that is also Christian based.

Then there is Colorado College which seems ideal for the outdoor student who would like to study one subject at a time for an extended amount of time, (three weeks) then have a week off to explore the great unknown.

Cornell College (not Cornell University) in Iowa offers a one class at a time curriculum. And according to their website, the student can immerse themselves in “1 Course x 18 Days x 8 Blocks. The territory we cover is the same as on a semester system. But the path we travel offers an entirely different journey.”

And for something completely different, Hamburger University in Oak Brook, Illinois is run by McDonald’s and based on managerial training. Classes translate into business management credits at other colleges.
It opened in 1961 and every year about 5,000 students graduate from campuses all around the world. China’s division has an admission rate of 1%.

Your student may find an alternative school that feels like home, or after looking at the alternatives, they might prefer a traditional college after all. But this is the time for exploration and with over 3000 colleges and universities in the United States, surely your student will find a school that is right for them.

Are High School Students Over/Underworked? A Comparison

Far, far away from you is an island. This island –a bit smaller than New York City — is close to the equator, so it’s always hot and muggy. It’s crowded, too; about 5.5 million people live there. A lot of ethnic groups, customs, and languages mingle, so everyone learns English to get by. Why am I waxing on about an island a minimum 17-hour flight from any point in the U.S.? Well, it’s because that island, aka the Republic of Singapore, produces the best educated high school students in the world.

Yep, Singapore is just one of many countries where the high school students outperform Americans. Now, American high school students are pretty good compared to most of the world, but since we’re the wealthiest country on Earth, it’s a bit embarrassing that we’re lagging behind other countries. What’s the cause? Are American high school students lazy? Are schools underfunded?

Or do students not have enough to do?

In this article, we’ll be investigating how the high school students’ workload has changed in recent decades and how it compares to our Singaporean peers.

Trends in American Education

Long story short, what we know as ‘high school’ didn’t come into being until the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957. America suddenly developed an inferiority complex, and legislators pumped billions into education, while parents bought educational toys for their children. Today everything from foreign language instruction to AP courses can all thank their existence to a beeping metal sphere about twice the size of a basketball.

So how does Sputnik’s legacy continue to affect 21st-century students’ workload? From my experiences as a student and teacher, the smarter a student is, the more work and higher expectations are forced upon them. What this means is that high-achieving students like you can go toe-to-toe with your Singaporean counterparts any day of the week.

Here’s the problem. When it comes to students who aren’t high achievers, they aren’t doing much in school and what they are doing isn’t helping them prepare for life’s challenges let alone a standardized test that researchers use to compare different countries’ students. In fact, when I started teaching at an alternative high school, I was shocked by how little work middle-of-the-road and low-achieving students did to graduate.

So, it makes sense then that when policymakers see how low U.S. high school students rank, their first reaction is “The kids are lazy! Pile on the work!”

That’s not the answer because you certainly don’t need more to do to be successful academically. Let’s see what makes a country’s students succeed.

Why Is Singapore so Successful?

Let’s examine a few key facts about the Singaporean education system:

  • The country spends only 3% of its GDP on education. (It’s almost 8% in the U.S.)
  • There is a central Ministry of Education. (Remember that in the U.S., each state controls its education system.)
  • Parents who don’t ensure that their children attend school are charged with a crime.
  • The government pays for preschool for children starting at age three.

Let me pause to say how important that last bullet is. Investing in preschool can prevent so many educational and behavioral problems later in life. Also, experienced preschool teachers can identify learning disabilities, ensuring that students receive access to appropriate interventions.

The Singaporean government is doing a lot of effective things to help their students succeed. What about the students? Do they work more, less, or about the same?

Let’s examine one statistic. Singaporean students spend more time on homework than Americans, approximately nine hours per week. You probably spend nine hours per week on homework, too. However, Singaporean high school students suffer from anxiety and feelings of overwork at much higher rates than American students.

Hmmm…

Takeaways

I think I see a trend, one that might apply to students in the U.S., Singapore, or any country.

[Amount of Schoolwork] x [Expectations to Succeed] = [Feelings of Overwork]

I’d wager that high achieving American and Singaporean students do the same amount of work, but Singaporean students feel higher stress because compared to the average U.S. student, their government and culture put much more emphasis on academic performance.

To put it another way, overwork can be more perception than actual reality. Did your teacher assign 50 math problems when 10 would be enough to master the content? That’s overwork, plain and simple. But do you have a lot of homework because the specialized honors/AP/IB curriculum moves at a fast pace? That’s necessary. The pressure you or others put on your academic success drains your energy, making something you’re capable of doing feel impossible.

Take it from someone who’s been on both sides of the teacher’s desk: though you may feel like it’s too much, you’re doing what you need to do.

Final Thoughts

You’re not overworked. In fact, many American high school students don’t do enough, and the work they need may not necessarily be what teachers in today’s classrooms would assign. Preschool and vocational training would go a long way to ensuring that every student works the same amount but performs the right work for them.

If it’s something that Singapore – a country that didn’t exist until 1965 – can achieve, it’s something we can achieve, and more importantly, something American students deserve.

The Power of Surrounding Yourself with Positive and Like-minded Individuals

“Surround yourself with the dreamers and the doers, the believers, and thinkers, but most of all, surround yourself with those who see greatness within you, even when you don’t see it in yourself.” – Steve Jobs.

For those who say that your success falls solely on your shoulders are wrong. If they weren’t, then Sociology wouldn’t be part of thousands of curricula across the nation, Malcom Gladwell’s The Outliers wouldn’t be a #1 National Best Seller, and the argument of Nature versus Nurture wouldn’t be discussed every other day in your Psychology class.

You’re a product of the social environment and culture that you are a part of.

The truth is that your success in the classroom or in the office falls on your shoulders, as well as those who you consistently choose to surround yourself with outside of the classroom or office. Being around a positive group of people who share similar goals and interests can be the single greatest catalyst to help you “make it…”

whether that might mean getting into the college of your dreams, making the JV basketball team, landing an internship or job, or simply passing a chemistry project that’s due tomorrow.

Actively look to place yourself around the people who live the lifestyle that you want… people who are going to help you get there. You might just learn some of your most important life-lessons from these people over a cup of coffee or long car ride.

I’ll give you an example of one of mine. My oldest brother, Pete, was once a Division I collegiate athlete, captain of his team, and bright and ambitious student in the classroom. It is no wonder that he is now a very successful lawyer… one of those positive individuals who seem to affect everyone around him by just believing in them.

One afternoon I was riding around in the passenger seat of his Jeep with him as he began lecturing me about his captainship. “I’m running sprints next to three of my teammates,” he said. “They’re winded and they’re dogging it. If I want to push them to get better, I need to know them. I need to know how to bring out the best in them, what works and what doesn’t with each teammate.

I speed up to the most gifted player in first place and make a remark about how he let someone as slow as me catch up to him. I slow down to the middle guy and tell him that he could be better than the first guy if he worked twice as hard. I slow down again to the last guy and tell him to try to finish the drill and beat his personal best time,” he said.

“We did this week after week. The guy who was in first place went on to be an All-American. The guy who was in second became a captain the following year. The guy in third earned the starting spot he waited his entire career for.”

Everything he said had gone right over my head. Years later I realized that he wasn’t boasting about himself or his teammates. He wasn’t talking about athletics at all.

He was trying to teach me the power of contagious emotion… how one individual can affect the rest of the environment, especially when that environment is comprised of likeminded individuals.

It is teammates, classmates, co-workers like Pete that serve as a catalyst to help those around them achieve success. No matter what grade you are in, or what stage of life you are about to endure, place yourself around individuals who are going to help you “get there.”

5 Simple Tricks to Relieve Academic-Related Stress

“Worrying is often triggered by wanting to make the perfect choice or by trying to maximize everything. When buying a used car, you want one that is cheap, reliable, safe, sexy, the right color, and fuel efficient.

Unfortunately, no single option is likely to be the best in all those dimensions. If you try to have the best of everything, you’re likely to be paralyzed by indecision or dissatisfied with your choice.” (Alex Corb, author of the Upward Spiral).

Studies have shown that academic-related stress is sky rocketing among high school students each decade. As the academic level of competition rises between teenagers, along with it comes an increased national average of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, or even alcohol and substance abuse.

However, I’m here to tell you 5 simple tricks that will help you relieve stress, increase focus, and produce healthier and more effective results on a daily basis.

 

1) Write down things you look forward to and be mindful of them

According to studies in The Happiness Advantage, setting a date for a potentially enjoyable experience raises endorphin levels in your brain by 27%. No matter what you have going on in your day, keep a sticky note in your backpack of all the enjoyable events coming up in the next month.

That might be something as simple as grabbing a slice of pizza with a friend this weekend, seeing a movie with your family, going for a walk with your dog after school, or planning a social event with classmates, teammates, or co-workers next week. Creating positive anticipation in your life will increase neurotransmitters, raising endorphin levels and reducing stress and anxiety.

 

2) Exercise!

No one likes being told to exercise… (especially with an exclamation point at the end of it). But I promise you it helps not only from a physical standpoint, but from a mental standpoint as well.

A Harvard study has shown that regular exercise creates health benefits, such as protecting against heart disease and diabetes, improving sleep, and lowering blood pressure. “High-intensity exercise releases the body’s feel-good chemicals called endorphins, resulting in the “runner’s high” that joggers report,” ultimately reducing depression symptoms (Harvard Health Letter).

 

3) Organization and Routine

If your stressed out with academics, athletics, job hunting, or your internship, take a look at your daily routine and see if you could find the source.

Get up before school with twenty minutes to spare (reducing anxiety of being late or forgetful), take the time to eat a healthy breakfast to fuel your energy for the day, do your homework at the same time every day to get in a systematic routine, take another twenty minutes to review your notes after your school day to help you consistently reinforce the processing of class material, and even say hi or socialize with one person every day that you wouldn’t normally have a conversation with (I promise you it will get easier).

An organized routine of healthy habits is the easiest way to create that neurological upward spiral.

 

4) Find a mentor

This one is fairly simple. Find an upperclassman, teacher, relative, or teammate that you respect and can confide in, specifically someone who is older than you and has gone through your current stage of life.

This type of mentor can serve as a knowledgeable guide that can give you academic and career advice, or when you are just feeling stressed out after a tough day.

 

5) Sleep

No one can have a healthy and productive day without sleep. I don’t care who they are or how much money they’ve made. Sleep is the foundation from which your energy and motivation comes from.

If you get the 8 hours of sleep that your body needs each night, you will be more focused and attentive throughout your day. The last thing you need is to be caught snoozing in class when your crush finally complements your new hair-cut.

When Should a Student Select Their Professional Path?

If you had asked 17-year-old me what I hoped to study in college, I would have told you that I was going to study medicine and become a doctor. Everyone I knew assumed that by the time I turned 26, I’d be Thomas Broderick, M.D.

So that didn’t happen.

My story mirrors that of many of my high school and college peers. My best friend, once an aspiring computer engineer, became a Japanese/English translator. Another friend earned a degree in chemical engineering but now works at a TOP SECRET government facility which may or may not have something to do with chemicals. Most surprising of all, my high school’s theater star went on to invent the Nest Thermostat.

Long story short: a person’s professional path isn’t a straight line.

In this article, we’ll examine why American high school and college students rarely have a grasp on their professional future. We’ll also explore the steps you can take right now to ensure that your career path starts off on the right foot.

American College Students vs. International College Students

If you lived 100 years ago (or today in a developing nation), chances are that you wouldn’t have much choice concerning your career. The economic needs of your family, coupled with limited access to higher education, would lock you into one of only a handful of career paths.

After the Second World War, millions of Americans gained access to higher education. With higher education came the opportunity for young men and women to pursue careers beyond those performed by their parents or those living in their community. That was great!

But…

Choice is a blessing and a curse. Too many options can be just as bad as too few. Our college culture, focused on exploring your interests, does little to help students who are undecided about their futures. On graduation day, too many people still have no idea what job will provide them both personal satisfaction and a fair salary.

How about young adults in foreign countries? Do they have this problem? Well, it depends. For example, higher education doesn’t mean the same thing in every country. In Germany, many high school graduates further their educations through apprenticeships. Though apprentices learn only one skill set, the economic advantages of completing an apprenticeship convince young Germans to choose their career paths at a young age.

In other developed countries, such as Japan, young people choose their career path early due to societal expectations rather than economic incentives. In Japanese culture, one’s decisions and actions reflect on one’s family as well as oneself. Combined with the belief in the wellbeing of the group over the wellbeing of the individual, many young Japanese choose a career path in high school.

Do young German and Japanese students always stick to the career paths they make in high school? Of course not! This revelation brings us to my main point:

Preferences Change (And That’s Okay!)

As a high school student, I bet you’ve seen or been a part of at least one nasty breakup. Two people who once said that they’d ‘be together forever’ can’t stand the sight of one another. It’s a natural part of the high school experience; people change, and so their preferences.

The same thing is accurate when it comes to your future career. Today you may want to become a doctor. Tomorrow it’s engineering. At your age, switching back and forth or between a dozen different things is okay!

Don’t believe me? Let’s examine the data. myKlovr recently performed a survey of 106 adults who were asked when they decided on their current career path. The numbers speak for themselves.


The vast majority of those surveyed decided upon their professional path while in college or later in life. Only 21% chose their career as a high school-aged student or younger. What this means is that if you’re still on the fence about your future, don’t sweat it. Most of your peers are in the same boat.

What You Can Do Now

If you’re still in high school, it’s time to start thinking about your future. When I say you should think, I do mean more than just sitting around like The Thinker. Here are a few proactive steps you can take to explore future careers before you enter college:

  • Complete a summer internship in a field that interests you.
    • Besides opening your eyes to different career paths, internships look great in your college application portfolio!
  • Take a few career interest tests to discover potential career paths that you may have never considered in the past.
  • Research the academic and professional requirements related to your current dream job(s).

It never hurts to get a part-time job, either. If nothing else, it’ll help you develop a professional work ethic that’ll impress future employers.

When You Get to College

By all means, take a semester or a year to explore different subjects. After that, it’s time to make some tough decisions, especially if you’re attending a private university with a hefty price tag. Choose a professional path and complementary academic major.

If you’re still not sure about your career path when it comes times to select a major, include a minor or second major that addresses your other interests. Though a double major or minor means that your college experience will be more academically rigorous, your options will remain open. Hopefully, as you get closer to graduation, your career preferences will solidify.

Final Thoughts

I hope that by having read this article, you feel a bit better about what the future might hold for you. Yes, you have a lot of work to do, both the soul-searching and academic varieties. Even so, the sooner you start working towards the future you want, the likelier it is that you can turn your dreams into reality.

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