Education in the so-called liberal arts (history, philosophy, literature, music and the social sciences) is sometimes slandered as a bourgeois indulgence – interesting and good for polite conversation, but not really useful for one’s career.
This is not true.
In the fast changing world of work we see today, a thorough grounding in those disciplines will give you a distinct advantage. It will give you a deeper understanding of how our current systems came to exist and an understanding that things have not always been this way. You will have access to the speculations of the greatest minds who have ever lived who have sage advice for how to live. Perhaps most importantly of all, you what constitutes proper evidence and an ability to contemplate perspectives you may not agree with. “The purpose of the humanities is to cultivate the individual, cultivate the citizen,” as cultural critic Leon Wieseltier said.
All of this will help you think critically about the way in which the world is progressing and your role in it. This will enable you to perceive big picture trends more accurately. And you will start to understand (including understanding that you’re an idiot who knows nothing, which is also important). If you are smart and hardworking, empower you to move swiftly and take advantage of them. This may mean founding your own company, or it may mean putting your efforts towards acquiring a specific vocational skill which you ascertain is likely to be well remunerated and consistently in demand. If you decide not to pursue financial success, a liberal arts education will equip you to contemplate the mysteries of the universe for as long as you wish.
What it will not do, however, is guarantee you a good well paying job.
That transition will require a further step. This could look like transitioning from a ¾ year undergraduate degree to a company which provides a training program, like many management consultancy or finance firms do. It may mean going back to school again to do an MA in something vocational like Public Administration (if you can stand becoming an apparatchik) or Journalism (don’t do journalism it’s a dying medium you’re better of just doing marketing since with the death of profit making media outlets all journalism is slowly becoming marketing/paid content anyway) or law (although law, since it’s one of the last remaining profitable industries that isn’t tech, is now hopelessly over-saturated meaning vicious fights for increasingly few jobs).
Which leads to the question – why get that education at college?
Until recently, colleges were pretty much the only places you could get such an education. They had all the books you needed, books you may never have heard of before. And they had access to the educators themselves, the academics whose tutoring is the primary draw for elite universities. But technology has changed everything. Pretty much everything you can learn at a university you can also learn for free online.
As far as we can tell, there are five reasons to get a college education in the humanities.
- Access to and time to read all the relevant books, including a list of which books to read.
- Learning and growing together with your classmates.
- Attending lectures and lessons by eminent academics.
- Interaction with world experts.
- A certificate, saying that you went to college, useful for the CV.
Most of these you can get without going to college.
The first part is simple. Once you know which books to read, you can get them anywhere. Many of the greatest books are out of copyright (often by many hundreds of years) so a lot of them you can download for free online. Public libraries will have many others, and at most libraries you can order in books that you want from other libraries. Even if you buy them yourself, the total cost of outfitting yourself pales into comparison with the cost of college.
The second part, friends, is not only doable via college. Yes you will meet fantastic people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. But you can meet people in all sorts of places. Apps like Study Pal can hook you up with a study partner in your local city. You can meet people everywhere. And if you’re actively engaged in any kind of extra-curricular clubs (theatre, music, book clubs, sports, martial arts etc) you will meet lots of people.
The third part is very straightforward. Lectures are now freely available online. Check out Open Culture, or The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps or Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories lectures, to name just a few. Lectures on pretty much any topic are available right now, for free.
The thing you can’t get without going to college is the one on one interaction with the teachers. That really is second to none. But even that you can ameliorate by making an effort to attend conferences, extend correspondence and meet academics in person. Professors make a living traveling, teaching and speaking, so if you live anywhere near a major metropolitan hub, you should be able to find ways to attend such talks. Once at the talks, you’ll be able to come up to the dons afterwards and ask them a couple of questions. Professors are normally happy to do this. Not only do they love talking about their chosen subjects, but it’s always gratifying to be treated with respect and deference. It’s not the same as a long term tutor-student relationship, but it’s the next best thing.
That leaves the issue of credentialism. There is currently no institution offering accreditation to the equivalent level of a four year liberal arts degree without attending such an institution. Cynics have pointed out that this is nothing short of a racket. But even that is changing. As more and more people flood into college, the value of the degree goes down and down. This is even as it becomes more and more expensive. Taking the time and money you would have spent on a degree and investing it into something else may give you something just as valuable (if not more so) that employers will value. It will also set you apart from the crowd of faceless, identical college graduates. Starting your own business, travelling the world, taking a shorter vocational course or (depending on where you live) putting a downpayment on a house are all less expensive than getting a BA.
As long as you are confident in your decision and can demonstrate to potential employers why what you did instead was worthwhile, staying away from college shouldn’t harm your employment prospects.
Check out Praxis, a one year intensive business apprenticeship program. It’s divided into a six-month bootcamp that teaches you the skills to succeed in the modern workplace, followed by a six-month apprenticeship at a real startup where you will earn actual money. Tuition is $11,000, but you will earn $14,400 during your apprenticeship so unlike with college, you will finish the program with tangible vocational skills and cold hard cash in the bank. Check out Thaddeus Russell, whose Renegade University courses are available at a fraction of the cost of a traditional university.
These are just two of the many options rapidly emerging to disrupt higher education and take advantage of the gap in the market.
College is three or four years of your life, right at the beginning of your working life when you have the most energy and passion and drive. You won’t get that time back. Do you really want to do that, only to finish and have to go back to school again, delaying your entry into the workforce even further? That’s how you end up with people in their mid-to-late twenties who have never had a real job – they stayed so long in school that all they know how to do is more school. You may be better off doing something vocational and getting into the workforce quickly, so you can start earning some money.
Getting an undergraduate degree in liberal arts is also horrifically expensive.
Professors will tell you that a liberal arts education is something irreplaceable, which will benefit you for your entire life, make everything else you learn more meaningful and more useful and give you a set of tools that you can’t get anywhere else and in any other way. They’re right.
But you can get that education elsewhere. You can get it for free. Starting right now.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. If you really want to devote that long to diving into advanced subjects, spending loads of time reading, and just exploring yourself surrounded by amazing intelligent people then go for it. But you don’t need to.
You can get a liberal arts education without going. So if you want to go because everyone else is going and you don’t really know what to do with yourself, then ask yourself if you can’t do better by taking a different route.
Did we miss out any great college alternatives you’d like to see us cover? Drop us a line to tell us about them: firstname.lastname@example.org