In Defense of the Liberal Arts: A Letter to Jeb Bush

Dear Mr. Bush,

Your recent comments at a town-hall meeting in South Carolina really rubbed me the wrong way, and have dangerous implications for the future of American progress and innovation.

You argued that “Universities ought to have skin in the game,” because, “when a student shows up, they ought to say ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts…but realize you’re going to be working a Chick-fil-A.’”

I want to make clear that I am in no way objecting to your comments on any “I was offended” grounds. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am pursuing a double major in Philosophy and Government at a small liberal arts college, and am a registered Independent from New Hampshire.

If you really struggle to see the value of a liberal arts degree, try looking a little closer. As the Huffington Post noted in March of last year, liberal arts majors help students develop skills that are crucial to success in a plethora of career paths. Philosophy majors score highest on the GRE’s verbal reasoning and analytical writing sections, and, more often than not, boast better law school acceptance rates than their non-Philosophy major peers.

This should be unsurprising, as liberal arts majors spend four years honing skills like critical thinking and oral and written communication. They craft, defend, and analyze complex arguments on a wide variety of topics and go on to make waves in a variety of different fields.

Carly Fiorina, who trails you by just a few points in the most recent polls, holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval History. CEOs, Nobel Laureates in medicine, Secretaries of Defense, governors, and countless other successful individuals hold degrees in Classics, English, History, Philosophy, Psychology, and Theatre.

Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau—who, by the way, would become something of a colleague of yours if you become president—holds a B.A. in English Literature. So does Mitt Romney.

During the first Bush administration a particularly reticent U.S. Supreme Court Justice received his nomination, even though he holds a degree in English from a small liberal arts college like mine. Perhaps your father felt differently about the value of a liberal arts education back in 1991 than you do in 2015.

You’re not totally wrong, though. It’s true that people aren’t as interested in vocational training these days as my parents’ and grandparents’ generations were.

Of course we still need electricians, plumbers, and carpenters. America’s rise to global dominance, and any hope it has of staying there, rests on the backs of hardworking, blue-collar individuals. Though I never had the chance to get to know him, my maternal grandfather, an important idol of mine, was one of those types of people. He served in Korea, worked for the Post Office, and in his free time was a skilled carpenter with an eye for elegance.

Even as a liberal arts junky, I recognize that we need people to enter vocational fields. As the son of two physicians and the younger brother of a current med-school student, I see the importance and relevance of STEM fields in creating a better America, too.

That is not to say, though, that any field—STEM, vocational, business, government, or otherwise—could function effectively if the individuals that comprise it lack a solid understanding of what it means to be human, and of how humans act both as individuals and in groups.

What doctor can genuinely swear by the Hippocratic oath without an understanding of ethics? What CEO can lead a corporate resurgence without effective “soft skills”? What public servant can run for office without a knack for rhetoric? As a presidential candidate, as an American citizen, and as a father, it’s crucial for you to understand this.

Can you honestly say that our Commander in Chief, the protector of the Constitution, can effectively serve our country without making use of any classic liberal arts skills? Without critical thinking and effective oral or written communication? The reality, Mr. Bush, is that your candidacy, and the United States, needs the liberal arts.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this when you visit the Granite State. Perhaps we can grab lunch at Chick-fil-A? My treat.



Conor O’Shea