Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Overemphasizing the Liberal Arts. From The Dartmouth.

By Chandrasekar Ramesh

While most countries begin specialization early in high school, the United States has a unique tradition in liberal arts education. In India, students begin to specialize in their “plus two” years, the equivalent of their junior and senior years of high school. Based on the track they choose, they apply to colleges for a specific program. Computer science majors would not take any literature courses, and business students would not take biology classes. Most proponents of the liberal arts argue that a well-rounded education provides broader tools to tackle a wide range of problems, and, presumably, such personal development also plays a crucial role in happiness.

However, from an employment perspective, a liberal arts education is disastrous. With 53 percent of all college graduates under the age of 25 unemployed or severely underemployed, this economy does not offer the luxury of postponing specialization until graduate school. According to Payscale, the top 10 schools with the best starting salaries were all technical schools, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology and Loma Linda University topping the list. Many students know from the beginning that they want to pursue a field in a hard science, and for them the “liberal arts” education is nothing but an obstacle. As these fields have shown, solving specialized, narrow problems is incredibly valuable, if not more valuable than solving broad, wide-ranging problems.



  1. The comment stream is pretty intelligent. Points to Dartmouth.

    I'm not 100% certain of this, but it's my impression that in countries where students specialize starting in the equivalent of the U.S. 11th grade (e.g. various parts of the former British empire), students encounter a humanities curriculum in the earlier grades that is significantly more rigorous than the U.S. one, and that decent scores on humanities sections of the exams in which this curriculum culminates are necessary for passage into higher ed programs of all sorts. One can argue about whether students in their early-mid teens are intellectually mature enough to get the most out of such studies, but I have the impression that Indian and European doctors, lawyers, engineers, and the like have at least encountered some of the "big questions" posed by literature, philosophy, history, ethics, and the like, and have grappled with them in fairly complex writing assignments.

    It might well work to introduce more rigorous humanities work earlier in the U.S. as well. What won't work is to have students move from the relatively lightweight humanities courses they encounter in U.S. high schools straight to specialization.

  2. Maybe it's the student population at my school, but most of my American students seem to be lacking even the basics of what I would consider a passable high school education. I have found that I can not assume ANY basic knowledge of civics for example. Sometimes I feel like I'm the high school teacher.

    1. I just had the following conversation with one of our first-year students:

      HIM: Wow, it's really windy.

      ME: Yes, we're getting the back end of Sandy.

      HIM: What's Sandy?

      ME: The hurricane that came through and battered 1,000 miles of coastline and flooded Manhattan.

      HIM: Where's Manhattan?

    2. Overheard in ca 1992, during the height of the first Gulf War: "Who's Colin Powell? Is he black?"

    3. I have mixed reactions to the comment BC reports. On the one hand, yes, not knowing where Manhattan is (and having some mental associations between it and power -- and, oh yes, that landmark, for better or for worse, event that happened just over 10 years ago, and which theoretically helped shape our current traditional-age students' worldviews) demonstrates abysmal ignorance. On the other hand, there are a few extremely Big Apple-centric acquaintances to whom I'd like to report it, with an implied "so there!"

  3. Sigh. I wish we could nip our own marketing centers in the bud. All together now...

    "The point of a college education is NOT to get a good job. It is to become a good citizen."

  4. Becoming a doctor in India takes just three years. After high school, students can enroll in medical school immediately.

    And this is a good thing? Do you want a 21-year-old with a three-year post-secondary degree operating on you? No, I want my doctors to carry hundreds of thousands of debt. I want to know that they had to be serious to take that on. And super motivated enough to pay it back.

    1. One of today's headlines: "NYU Langone Medical Center Evacuates Newborns During Hurricane Sandy"

  5. Here's a natural scientist who sees the value in humanities education.

    In Germany, the college-track high school degree ("Abitur" from a "Gymnasium") is supposedly equivalent to an AA degree. Some specialization is started the last two years, but there is still broad training in numerous fields. They then go on to the university with AA-level exposure across the disciplines, but then at the university there is little in the way of courses outside of one's field. Some majors require one course from another field; teaching degrees require ethics and pedagogy outside of one's discipline. But students have at least two, sometimes three majors. So you get a lot of people with math-history, German-biology etc. combinations. Seems to work.