In Defense of a Liberal Education

Dated Oct 31, 2021; last modified on Mon, 05 Sep 2022


Societal Preference for STEM Over the Liberal Arts

Not everyone can [wants to?] take the sciences, but they were pushed out of their passions into applicable degrees like Business and Communications.

The initially high economic return to applied STEM degrees declines by more than 50% in the first decade. People who major in LA don’t get first jobs that are as lucrative, but they do catch up.

Governments tend to claim a shortage of STEM workers (who are valued for innovation and national defense), and allocate funds for increasing the student pipeline. However, the fact that STEM wages have stagnated, and new grads struggle to find jobs casts doubt on the claim. Furthermore, the data is murky (e.g. who is classified as STEM, is a STEM degree a pre-requisite for a STEM job) that it can be massaged to support a specific policy.

A Brief History of Liberal Education

Education was first a preparation for roles to be assumed in society, e.g. hunting, ruling, fighting, etc. Innovation in government prompted an innovation in education. Athens' dream for democratic rule called for an educated populace.

Athenian democracy was only open to adult, male citizens (no foreign residents, slaves, women, nor children). Plato criticized the inclusiveness of the government, e.g. the organization of the city must be confided to those who possess knowledge, who alone can enable their fellow citizens to attain virtue, and therefore excellence, by means of education.

Humanistic subjects, e.g. language and history, equipped the young to be politicians, courtiers, lawyers, merchants, etc. Science was a path to abstract knowledge w/o practical purpose. Students expected to take multiple subjects and relate them to one another, for it was assumed that there was a single, divine intelligence behind all of them.

The idea of a single, divine intelligence behind all of the subject is explored in Ted Chiang’s “Understand” .

The etymology of “university” suggests a leaning to the liberal arts. traces “university” to Old French universite “universality; academic community” (13c.), from Medieval Latin universitatem , “the whole, aggregate,” in Late Latin “corporation, society,” from universus “whole, entire”.

Emphasis on learning to read critically, analyze data, and formulate ideas. Undergrads can explore their interests, and do research and practical matters in grad school.

Do students have more debt in undergrad or in grad school? On one hand, parents are more likely to finance the first degree, but on the other hand, PhD programs tend to be funded, and masters programs are shorter.

Grad students borrow 67% of federal student loan dollars. Of the undergrads who have loans, the average owed is $16,940 for an undergraduate certificate, $21,890 for an associate’s degree, and $31,790 for a bachelor’s degree. Of the grads and post-grads who have loans, the average owed is $70,070 for a master’s degree, $118,360 for a doctoral degree, and $199,540 for a professional degree.

Yale-NUS as a trailblazer. Emphasis on the modes of inquiry, e.g. why would Plato’s and Confucius’s systems of ethics be similar/different, and teammwork.

Learning to Think

LA teaches one how to write, and writing makes you think, e.g. is there a logical sequence to my ideas, do the available facts support the conclusion. Of the engineers that advanced in Lockheed Martin, the most distinguishing factor was the ability to think broadly, and read and write clearly.

LA teaches one how to read closely, present an opposing view, detect an author’s prejudices, find data to prove/disprove a hypothesis, search for new sources, etc.

The best thinking occurs when ideas, fields, and disciplines collide. LA skills, e.g. flexibility, creativity, emotional intelligence, developing a hypothesis, etc., are currently hard for computers, and will not be automated away soon.

Asian countries with bent for non-LA do well economically and on PISA rankings, but don’t do as well at innovation (e.g. for VC investments as a % of GDP: #1 US, #5 Sweden, #10 Israel) and R&D as a % of GDP (#1 Israel, #4 Sweden, #10 US).

Does this still hold? The suggestion that non-LA is correlated with lower R&D doesn’t make sense. If a government is encouraging STEM over everything, why would it skimp on R&D?

As of 2019 data, the ranking of R&D as a % of GDP is Israel (4.9%), South Korea (4.6%), Taiwan (3.5%), Sweden (3.4%), Japan (3.2%), Germany (3.2%), Austria (3.2%), US (3.1%). In actual money though, US ($613B), China ($515B), Japan ($173B), Germany ($132B), South Korea ($100B), France ($64B), India ($59B), UK ($52B), Taiwan ($43B) and Russia ($39B).

Looks like South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan got the memo.

Knowledge and Power

Better lives, e.g. the average Chinese person is 40x richer and lives 30 years longer than they did 50 years ago. While much of this has been attributed to scientific advancements, LAs have spearheaded more productive economic/social/political organization. #socioeconomics

People who were not at the center of the old power structures, e.g. women, LGBTQ, racial minorities, now have more more rights.

The values celebrated by LA, e.g. broad exploration of knowledge, humanistic ideas, open exchange, threatens the tight political control of authoritarians.

Memorable quote from :

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

I think students from lower SES families should prioritize income potential (typically through a STEM degree). Pure LA is better left for the already well-off.


  1. In Defense of a Liberal Education. Fareed Zakaria. Mar 30, 2015. ISBN: 9780393247695 .
  2. STEM careers and technological change. Deming, David J.; Kadeem L. Noray. . . 2018.
  3. Etymology of university | Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas R. Harper. . Accessed Nov 6, 2021.
  4. Athenian Democracy. . Accessed Nov 6, 2021.
  5. The STEM Crisis Is a Myth. Robert N. Charette. . Aug 30, 2021. Accessed Nov 6, 2021.
  6. Student Loan Debt Statistics [2021]: Average + Total Debt. . Accessed Nov 6, 2021.
  7. List of countries by research and development spending. . Accessed Nov 6, 2021.