“THE MORE I studied my course, the more I felt that I was less likely to be employed once I graduated,” said Hwang Jin-hyun, a Yonsei alumnus of the Department of Philosophy. Despite studying a subject often referred to as liberal arts, he currently has an office job at Seoul Metro. Even at a surface level, his career path does not reflect his studies. “Though I chose philosophy because I enjoyed it, I now regret that decision quite a bit.” Today, liberal arts students illustrate this dire situation with the phrase “sorry for majoring in liberal arts,” which is more popularly known as moon song hap ni da, a combination of Korean words meaning “liberal arts,” and “sorry.” While the neologism first emerged as an online joke, it has become a cruel reality to these students.
Why are they sorry?
The phrase “sorry for majoring in liberal arts” appeared in 2014 as a joke about how movies often follow plots where the world is saved by characters who specialize in engineering or the sciences but not by those who study liberal arts. As most Korean businesses and universities became more welcoming to engineering, science, economics and business majors, liberal arts students are now “apologizing” for studying fields that are unpopular in the job market.
According to a 2017 research by the Yonsei Career Service Team, while 75% of Yonsei university graduates of engineering departments found jobs, only 58% of those with liberal arts degrees were employed. One reason for the discrepancy of employment is corporate demand. According to Kim Seung-hyun, the Deputy General Manager of Yonsei Career Service Team, because many firms demand employees who are competent in skills such as finance, accounting, and computer programming, most job openings are for those who majored in business, economics, engineering and the sciences. In a 2018 survey by the recruitment web portal Incruit, among 571 listed firms, 53% of them responded that they were searching for recruits with engineering degrees. Reminiscing about his experience of trying to find work, Hwang said, “Almost all recruitment ads were for business, science and engineering students. Even though some were open to all fields, they came with a catch like, ‘business/economics majors preferred.’ So it felt like they were excluding liberal arts students.”
Students of liberal arts subjects such as Student A* (Dept. of Chinese Language and Lit.) and Student B* (Dept. of Theology and Dept. of Computer Science) are among those who are left worrying about the difficulty they will face after completing degrees in liberal arts. Student B said, “Since we focus more on knowledge than practical skills, I think liberal arts is less valued when it comes to employment.” Student A shared, “Let’s say there is a cellphone. Science and engineering graduates would be those who make the phone, business and economics graduates would be the ones who sell it, and liberal arts graduates would be the ones asking why it is important to have the phone in the first place. But because we cannot really see what liberal arts are contributing, I think it’s hard to understand the value in those questions.”
Similarly, liberal arts students are also struggling in universities. As more firms look for students from engineering and science departments, the Ministry of Education launched a university subsidy program called PRIME (Program for Industrial Needs-Matched Education), to bridge the imbalance between the labor supply and the demand in the corporate sector. To be selected for the program, universities had to reduce the amount of liberal arts courses offered and increase those of engineering and science departments. According to The Hankyoreh, a total of 21 universities, among them Ewha Women’s University and Konkuk University, reduced the admittance of liberal arts colleges by an average of 49% while increasing that of engineering departments by 90%. As corporate and academic sectors shun the arts, the joke that started five years ago has evolved into a merciless reality among liberal arts students today.
Leveling the playing field
To make sure that they get the same opportunity as those in science and engineering departments, many liberal arts students have opted to study double majors. Student B, who double majors theology with computer science, said, “Although studies like computer science are more technical, I think they also require knowledge of the humanities to be translated into something meaningful.” Deputy General Manager Kim highlighted the importance of studying various fields, saying, “If you consider job trends in the long run, I would definitely recommend double majors to widen your career path.” However, applying for two majors is not as easy as it used to be. According to The Korea Economic Daily, the minimum required GPA to double major in business at Seoul National University in 2018 increased from 3.8 to 4.1 in just one semester. The same situation can also be seen in Yonsei, as Hwang mentioned, “I missed my chance to double major because the requirements became stricter. I couldn’t apply again because I was scared that I would lag behind in my studies. I regret this a little because my batchmates who double majored in economics or business were better off in finding work.”
Engaging in apprenticeship and internship programs is another way for liberal arts students to increase their chances of employment. According to Deputy General Manager Kim, “The best way to show that you are qualified is through getting first-hand experience on how businesses are managed and run. It is also important to show the companies that you are actively looking for ways to improve the skills needed for your career.”
Liberal arts still matter
Though liberal arts students are facing an uphill battle in employment, their studies are becoming more relevant in today’s society. Student B said, “I think liberal arts is the study of applying creativity. To make technology useful and significant in society, it is important to think about why and how people should use it.” According to The Economic Times, technology companies are also recognizing the need for liberal arts. In 2017, Infosys, a software development firm, hired more than 7000 people, and around 25% had a liberal arts background. In an interview with The Economic Times, the head of global services of Infosys mentioned that those who studied the arts are thinkers who tend to put themselves in the shoes of the consumers. As Infosys designs their digital services with direct consumer participation in mind, a better understanding of user experience is necessary.
With the increase of AI technology also being used in projects that are directly related to life, the need for liberal arts has increased. One example is the AI in autonomous vehicles, which is incapable of making ethical decisions in situations like running over a pedestrian to save the passengers. When faced with these moral dilemmas, these bots fail to ask questions of “why,” and they cannot understand how to appeal to human consumers. This is why those with a profound understanding of the arts is still needed in society.
As the phrase “sorry for majoring in liberal arts” suggests, the value of the arts is often overlooked; firms are excluding liberal arts majors in their recruitment, and universities are reorganizing their colleges to meet corporate demands. As a result, students of liberal arts are left worrying about their future after receiving their diplomas. However, they do not have to be fear, as there will always be value in studying the arts. As John Keating, from the movie Dead Poets Society said, “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
*Both interviewees wished to remain anonymous.