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How a Liberal Arts Education Can Round Out Your Military Career

The military ranks among the first organizations to recognize the value of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, deploying engineers and promoting scientists to top positions.

But the Armed Forces also has maintained a focus on liberal arts. Creativity, critical thinking, understanding distinct cultures and high-level communication skills remain highly valued – skills a liberal arts education can provide.

Joseph Zengerle, a Washington lawyer who along with his wife has endowed the Zengerle Family Lectures in the Arts and Humanities at West Point, recently wrote that “studying the humanities is just as important as science, technology, engineering and math.”

That’s an important idea to keep in mind for servicemembers furthering their education. Even if they are focused on technical skills or STEM degree programs, a liberal arts education can round out their military career.


Read More: Military Student Spotlight – U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class James Greco


In his doctoral thesis submitted at Georgetown University in 2015, Joseph Kaufmann wrote that technical objectives are the usual focus in the military. However, he noted that the qualities of effective leadership can best be accomplished “through a broad-based education best accomplished through a liberal arts education.”

Jim Solti, chief scientist at the U.S. Air Force Academy Office of Research, wrote on the Air Force website that he was an Airman for 15 years before he saw the value of the humanities.

“Even as the Air Force remains the most technological and innovative military branch in the nation, humanities must harmonize with STEM to produce the appropriate measured response in every military action taken,” Solti wrote.

What Liberal Arts Teaches

What exactly does a liberal arts education bring to the table?

A turning point for Solti came in the Gulf War when his team prepared a technical analysis for proposed air strikes that involved infrastructural networks, he told The Atlantic magazine. It was complicated, but the admiral who received the report knew that simply receiving data was not enough to warrant a decision; the admiral wanted more context of the history and culture of the region as he considered the consequences of any action.

For military servicemembers, a liberal arts education can foster a holistic view of the world and make for a more well-rounded career.

  • Better Decision-Making – Military servicemembers often must make high-stakes decisions in extremely stressful environments. Understanding all the ramifications of the decision beyond the initial technical aspects requires a liberal arts focus.
  • Learn How to Think – A liberal arts education does not tell people what to think. Rather, it tells them how to think, giving them tools for approaching complex challenges with a better understanding of historical and cultural contexts.
  • Understand How Others Think – In a post on the Task & Purpose site on how the liberal arts made her a better Naval officer, Anna Granville said she often faces situations marked by “chaos and questions.” But her education has helped her “make sense of paradox” as well as understand how people on the other side are thinking in an operational environment.

Answering the Why

Granville notes that a STEM education is excellent for answering four of the five Ws: who, what, where and when, while a liberal arts education can help answer the most puzzling question – why? That helps not only during military operations, but also in understanding fellow officers, servicemembers and even those in your family.

Servicemembers are wise to learn all the technical aspects of their given assignment. But a liberal arts education can make them a more well-rounded individual and improve their career chances once they leave the military.

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