Starving liberal artists
Even in an uncertain economy, liberal arts degrees can provide marketable skills
The joke is an old one: When talking to an English major, you usually end the conversation with “Yes, I do want fries with that.” Studying Proust or Joyce is not exactly economically sound. Especially in the face of a volatile economy, many people see such study as privileged fancy. Today people want students to buckle down: Society cannot afford to have its next generation lollygagging around and seeking impractical intellectual pursuits in the comfort of the ivory tower. The consensus seems to be that if you are going to college, you better be majoring in some kind of STEM field, since such fields prove to be practical, which is to say they are economically valuable.
Meanwhile, criticism against the liberal arts is becoming more pronounced. Take the stance Florida Gov. Rick Scott expressed in a October 2011 with the Herald-Tribune, for example: “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education … I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
In a minor point, Scott is wrong. For those select students seeking a career in academia and research — the future professors and scientists — a liberal arts education is job training, and college is exactly where they need to be. For the students who will seek non-academic jobs after graduation, the link between a liberal arts education and workforce training is more tenuous. But there does not have to be a strict dichotomy between the liberal arts and career preparation. Many programs within colleges and universities combine the two successfully. For example, students at the College of William & Mary — a public university with a reputation of a liberal arts college — have the opportunity to earn simultaneous degrees in the liberal arts and engineering through a partnership with Columbia University.
But the root of the problem is this: Those who have disdain for the liberal arts are too narrow in their conception of what is practical. A liberal arts degree is supposed to prepare one for the workforce irrespective of what career one chooses. A successful person today needs more than technical expertise; ours is a complex world, and we need leaders with great analytical skills, critical thinking and mastery of abstract concepts to navigate it. This flexibility, so opposed to the partisan mindset of Scott and the like, is immensely useful in a job market flushed with white-collar work opportunities. Sure, computer programming is an invaluable technical skill, but when the boss needs a memo or a report, he will inevitably pick the English major to do it. Also, is it not ironic that the governor decries the liberal arts when the best training for his current job can be obtained with a “useless” politics degree? (That Scott earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration is telling.)
We must not forget the argument that the liberal arts are an inherent social good: They foster critical thinking, which is central to a democratic society founded upon discourse. It is important to note that in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” the totalitarian government maintains its power partly by controlling the words, and thus the thoughts, of its subjects. Such a government can exist in a society whose citizens are untrained in argument and rhetoric — a society without training in the liberal arts.
The liberal arts also promote the study of different viewpoints and perspectives, which has great moral weight in an increasingly pluralistic modern world. President Barack Obama cites attending Occidental College, a liberal arts college in California, as a catalyst for his political career: “Because of the example of wonderful teachers and lasting friends, I began to notice a world beyond myself,” he said in a 2008 speech at Wesleyan University It is hard to imagine the president having the same revelation if he looked at equations all day. Are we then ready to forfeit the noble ends of the liberal arts so easily?
We should not forfeit the liberal arts. They are worth fighting for. Assaults on the liberal arts are hysteric responses to economic downturn. If you apply yourself at a university, no matter what field, you will graduate with marketable skills and better job prospects than when you entered. Besides, the war on liberal education is just a distraction from the real bogeyman hanging over higher education: skyrocketing costs and a student debt bubble ready to burst. Scott’s defamed anthropology majors, after graduating, will surely benefit the world with their broad range of knowledge — whether they become anthropologists or not.
Rolph Recto’s column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.