Liberal Arts Majors: Gateways to Power

by Mary Dockray-Miller and Asiya Shaikh

In the wake of the turmoil that coronavirus has caused in higher education, numerous regional and less-selective schools are cutting traditional liberal arts faculty and programs as part of draconian budgetary measures. The administrative assumption, and the dominant political will, seems to be that more practical majors will attract more prospective students since professionally-focused majors will allow students to “get a job” (with the added assumption that traditional liberal arts majors, especially those in the humanities, impede students from attaining gainful employment at graduation). Guilford College and the University of Vermont are simply the most recent to announce these sorts of cuts, phasing out majors in history, philosophy, chemistry, math, political science (Guilford); classics, geology, area studies (Vermont); and religious studies and foreign languages (both).

It’s ironic that the policy makers and “thought leaders” who advocate for cutting traditional liberal arts majors largely went to highly selective schools that would never consider cutting the history major, and most of them majored in the traditional liberal arts. A list of the undergraduate majors of current United States senators provides a discrete data set demonstrating that access to political and cultural power flows through the liberal arts, no matter the selectivity of the undergraduate college (for example, former New Hampshire governor and current senator Jeanne Shaheen majored in English at Shippensburg, a non-selective, regional, public university). Political science, economics, and history are the most-elected majors of our senators. Yes, it certainly helps to be white, male, and wealthy—a political science major alone is not enough to win a senate seat.  The liberal arts comprise a consistently important part of the profile, however; the breakdown of liberal arts vs. professional majors for current U.S. senators is 75/29 (double majors and 5 non-respondents create numbers that do not add up exactly to 100). It’s also worth noting that president-elect Joe Biden majored in History and his wife Jill majored in English, both at the respected but not elite University of Delaware.


U.S. Senators (116th Congress): Colleges and Majors

US Senators (116th Congress)Colleges Attended (undergrad)Majors
Jones, Doug (D-AL)University of AlabamaPolitical Science
Shelby, Richard C. (R-AL)University of AlabamaPolitical Science
Murkowski, Lisa (R-AK)Georgetown UniversityEconomics
Sullivan, Dan (R-AK)Harvard UniversityEconomics
McSally, Martha (R-AZ)US Air Force AcademyBiology
Sinema, Kyrsten (D-AZ)Brigham Young UniversitySocial Work
Boozman, John (R-AR)University of Arkansas/Southern College of OptometryOptometry
Cotton, Tom (R-AR)Harvard UniversityGovernment
Feinstein, Dianne (D-CA)Stanford UniversityHistory and Political Science
Harris, Kamala D. (D-CA)Howard UniversityPolitical Science and Economics
Bennet, Michael F. (D-CO)Wesleyan UniversityHistory
Gardner, Cory (R-CO)Colorado State UniversityPolitical Science
Blumenthal, Richard (D-CT)Harvard CollegeGovernment
Murphy, Christopher (D-CT)Williams CollegeHistory and Political Science
Carper, Thomas R. (D-DE)Ohio State UniversityEconomics
Coons, Christopher A. (D-DE)Amherst CollegeChemistry and Political Science
Rubio, Marco (R-FL)University of FloridaPolitical Science
Scott, Rick (R-FL)University of Missouri-Kansas CityBusiness Administration
Loeffler, Kelly (R-GA)University of Illinois-Urbana-CampaignMarketing
Perdue, David (R-GA)Georgia TechIndustrial Engineering
Hirono, Mazie K. (D-HI)University of Hawaii-ManoaPsychology
Schatz, Brian (D-HI)Pomona CollegePhilosophy
Crapo, Mike (R-ID)Brigham Young UniversityPolitical Science
Risch, James E. (R-ID)University of IdahoForestry
Duckworth, Tammy (D-IL)University of HawaiiPolitical Science
Durbin, Richard J. (D-IL)Georgetown UniversityForeign Service and Economics
Braun, Mike (R-IN)Wabash CollegeEconomics
Young, Todd (R-IN)United States Naval AcademyPolitical Science
Ernst, Joni (R-IA)Iowa State UniversityPsychology
Grassley, Chuck (R-IA)Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa)Political Science
Moran, Jerry (R-KS)University of KansasEconomics
Roberts, Pat (R-KS)Kansas StateJournalism
McConnell, Mitch (R-KY)University of LouisvillePolitical Science
Paul, Rand (R-KY)*** see note at bottom ***--
Cassidy, Bill (R-LA)Louisiana State UniversityBiochemistry
Kennedy, John (R-LA)Vanderbilt UniversityPoli Sci/Philosophy/Economics
Collins, Susan M. (R-ME)St. Lawrence UniversityGovernment
King, Angus S., Jr. (I-ME)Dartmouth College(no response)
Cardin, Benjamin L. (D-MD)University of PittsburghEconomics
Van Hollen, Chris (D-MD)Swarthmore CollegePhilosophy
Markey, Edward J. (D-MA)Boston CollegeHistory
Warren, Elizabeth (D-MA)University of HoustonSpeech Pathology and Audiology
Peters, Gary C. (D-MI)Alma CollegePolitical Science
Stabenow, Debbie (D-MI)Michigan State University(no response)
Klobuchar, Amy (D-MN)Yale UniversityPolitical Science
Smith, Tina (D-MN)Stanford UniversityPolitical Science
Hyde-Smith, Cindy (R-MS)University of Southern Mississippi(no response)
Wicker, Roger F. (R-MS)University of MississippiJournalism and Political Science
Blunt, Roy (R-MO)Southwest Baptist UniversityHistory
Hawley, Josh (R-MO)Stanford UniversityHistory
Daines, Steve (R-MT)Montana State UniversityChemical Engineering
Tester, Jon (D-MT)College of Great FallsMusic
Fischer, Deb (R-NE)University of Nebraska-LincolnEducation
Sasse, Ben (R-NE)Harvard UniversityGovernment
Cortez Masto, Catherine (D-NV)University of Nevada-RenoBusiness Administration
Rosen, Jacky (D-NV)University of MinnesotaPsychology
Hassan, Margaret Wood (D-NH)Brown UniversityHistory
Shaheen, Jeanne (D-NH)Shippensburg UniversityEnglish
Booker, Cory A. (D-NJ)Stanford UniversityPolitical Science
Menendez, Robert (D-NJ)St. Peter's CollegePolitical Science
Heinrich, Martin (D-NM)University of MissouriMechanical Engineering
Udall, Tom (D-NM)Prescott College / Cambridge UniversityBachelor of Law
Gillibrand, Kirsten E. (D-NY)Dartmouth CollegeAsian Studies
Schumer, Charles E. (D-NY)Harvard CollegeSocial Studies concentration
Burr, Richard (R-NC)Wake Forest UniversityCommunications
Tillis, Thom (R-NC)University of Maryland University CollegeTechnology Management
Cramer, Kevin (R-ND)Concordia CollegeSocial Work
Hoeven, John (R-ND)Dartmouth CollegeEconomics and History
Brown, Sherrod (D-OH)Yale UniversityRussian Studies
Portman, Rob (R-OH)Dartmouth CollegeAnthropology
Inhofe, James M. (R-OK)University of TulsaEconomics
Lankford, James (R-OK)University of Texas-AustinSecondary Ed (speech + history)
Merkley, Jeff (D-OR)Stanford UniversityInternational Relations
Wyden, Ron (D-OR)Stanford UniversityPolitical Science
Casey, Robert P., Jr. (D-PA)College of the Holy CrossEnglish
Toomey, Patrick J. (R-PA)Harvard UniversityPolitical Science
Reed, Jack (D-RI)West Point(no response)
Whitehouse, Sheldon (D-RI)Yale University(no response)
Graham, Lindsey (R-SC)University of South CarolinaPsychology
Scott, Tim (R-SC)Charleston Southern UniversityPolitical Science
Rounds, Mike (R-SD)South Dakota State UniversityPolitical Science
Thune, John (R-SD)Biola UniversityBusiness
Alexander, Lamar (R-TN)Vanderbilt UniversityLatin American Studies
Blackburn, Marsha (R-TN)Mississsippi UniversityHome Economics
Cornyn, John (R-TX)Trinity UniversityJournalism
Cruz, Ted (R-TX)Princeton UniversityPublic Policy
Lee, Mike (R-UT)Brigham Young UniversityPolitical Science
Romney, Mitt (R-UT)Brigham Young UniversityEnglish
Leahy, Patrick J. (D-VT)St. Michael's CollegePolitical Science
Sanders, Bernard (I-VT)University of ChicagoPolitical Science
Kaine, Tim (D-VA)University of MissouriEconomics
Warner, Mark R. (D-VA)George Washington UniversityPolitical Science
Cantwell, Maria (D-WA)Miami UniversityPublic Administration
Murray, Patty (D-WA)Washington State UniversityPhysical Education
Capito, Shelley Moore (R-WV)Duke UniversityZoology
Manchin, Joe, III (D-WV)West Virginia UniversityBusiness Administration
Baldwin, Tammy (D-WI)Smith CollegePolitical Science and Math
Johnson, Ron (R-WI)University of MinnesotaBusiness and Acounting
Barrasso, John (R-WY)Georgetown UniversityBiology
Enzi, Michael B. (R-WY)George Washington UniversityAccounting
*** Rand Paul attended Baylor University from 1981-1984 but did not graduate; he was admitted to Duke Medical School and graduated with an M.D. in 1988. At Baylor, Paul's studies focused on English and biology (source:
*** Rand Paul attended Baylor University from 1981-1984 but did not graduate; he was admitted to Duke Medical School and graduated with an M.D. in 1988. At Baylor, Paul's studies focused on English and biology (source:

10 Most Influential People in Boston: Colleges and Majors

NameCollege Major Current position
Charlie BakerHarvard CollegeEnglishGovernor of Massachusetts
Linda HenryBabson CollegeBusinessManaging director, Boston Globe
Andrew LellingBinghampton UniversityLiterature and RhetoricU.S. attorney, district of Massachusetts
Ayanna Pressley(has not graduated)NARepresentative in Congress
Marty WalshBoston CollegePolitical ScienceMayor of Boston
Bob RiversStonehill CollegeFinanceChair and CEO, Eastern Bank
John FishBowdoin CollegePolitical ScienceCEO, Suffolk Construction
Jonathan KraftWilliams CollegeHistoryOwner of the New England Patriots
Abigail JohnsonHobart and William Smith CollegeArt HistoryChair and CEO, Fidelity Investments
Jim RooneyHarvard CollegeEconomicsPresident and CEO, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce

Similarly, seven of the 10 most influential people in Boston (so determined in a recent Boston Magazine article) were liberal arts majors, and not all at elite institutions.* Our governor, Charlie Baker, majored in English at Harvard; Andrew Yelling, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, majored in Literature and Rhetoric at SUNY Binghamton. Like the US senators, these wielders of power did not acquire finite skill sets as undergraduates but honed their critical thinking skills with broad-based inquiry.

In an Inside Higher Ed column this past September, Melanie Ho pointed out that the United States is well on its way to developing a two-tiered system of higher education: a set of elite, selective schools that offer majors in the traditional liberal arts and sciences, with a second tier of schools that offer more technically- or professionally-focused majors to a broader demographic. Our data expands on her warning to provide evidence that the current administrative and political preference for preprofessional majors is ultimately elitist and exclusionary. 

Our fear about these sorts of skills-focused programs is that they are so specialized that they don’t allow any professional flexibility when markets and economies inevitably change. A history major knows how to do research in a variety of modes, how to examine a problem from a variety of angles, how to write clearly and cleanly about that research and examination, and how to adapt numerous modes of thinking to disparate situations. Those are all crucial skills applicable in an infinite assortment of circumstances. In 2035, would an employer be more likely to hire a history major, with that nebulous but importantly fungible skill set, or an e-sports management major, whose skill set will be finite, especially without any professional development since 2020? Students majoring in e-sports management may find employment at graduation right now, but could easily find themselves in 2035 in the same position as travel agents in 2010.

The underlying effect of these recent cuts to the liberal arts is to provide the majority of the nation’s undergraduates with “practical” majors at regional public universities that will enable them to “get a job” while the children of the supposed meritocracy have access to the thought processes and inquiry methods that will ultimately enable them to assume positions of cultural, political, and economic power. Many years ago, at a conference discussion of MOOCs, one of the speakers uttered a phrase that’s continually resonated: Massive Open Online Courses were “Walmart education good enough for other people’s children.” The MOOC model, once touted as a great equalizer and positive disruption, has been largely discredited. Overly specialized, skill-specific majors—e.g. in e-sports management or event planning—are yet another form of Walmart education good enough for other people’s children. 

If we don’t provide the students at regional, non-selective universities even the opportunity to choose traditional liberal arts majors, then those traditional liberal arts will remain entrenched at majority-white, majority-upper-income institutions; those liberal arts will continue to reinforce their own exclusivity and closed-mindedness; they will continue to seem less relevant to the majority of Americans

Undergraduates themselves have bought into this anti-liberal-arts narrative; they avoid liberal arts majors, which seem not to offer a sense of economic security post-graduation or an answer to the “what are you going to do with that?” questions posed by family and friends (the number of English majors dropped 20% nationwide from 2012-2018). They tend to see humanities majors as inevitably leading only to a K12 teaching career, not realizing that liberal arts skills are applicable, necessary, and valuable in a variety of powerful and lucrative professions, including U.S. senator. 

If we don’t provide the students at regional, non-selective universities even the opportunity to choose traditional liberal arts majors, then those traditional liberal arts will remain entrenched at majority-white, majority-upper-income institutions; those liberal arts will continue to reinforce their own exclusivity and closed-mindedness; they will continue to seem less relevant to the majority of Americans. Liberal arts narratives will continue to be constructed by white, upper-middle-class scholars, mostly heterosexual males, and the world at large will be intellectually impoverished from that homogeneity. An array of liberal arts majors benefits the discourse in the university; more importantly, those majors also benefit the graduates who leave that university to access and engage in multiple, overlapping, compelling contributions to the economy and the culture at large. 

About the Authors

Mary Dockray-Miller is Professor of English in the Humanities department at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Public Medievalists, Racism, and Suffrage in the American Women’s College (Palgrave, 2017) and The Books and the Life of Judith of Flanders (Ashgate, 2016).

Asiya Shaikh is double majoring in English and elementary education at Lesley University.