Sunday, June 19, 2011

Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree?

Every year or two, my husband, an academic advisor at a prestigious Midwestern university, gets a call from a student's parent. Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so's son is a sophomore now and still insistent on majoring in film studies, anthropology, Southeast Asian comparative literature or, god forbid … English. These dalliances in the humanities were fine and good when little Johnny was a freshman, but isn't it time now that he wake up and start thinking seriously about what, one or two or three years down the line, he's actually going to do?



  1. I got an English degree (3 now, actually). I also got a job when I graduated, another one after my Masters, and guess what? I got one with my PhD too. Articles like this one piss me the fuck off, just as the writer expects them to.


    Because if students in my field are willing to sit around on their asses and do nothing to make themselves employable after graduation, it's not really directly my problem. They may also be the same folks who don't turn in shit on time, beg for extra credit, and don't bother to seek out internships.

    I work at a school for about another month with something like a crazy 88% in field employment rate. Even then, when we call graduates to ask them if they'd like help finding a job, some of them flat out tell us they don't even want to work.

    I can't fight that, and neither can my liberal arts colleagues.

    The people I know who I graduated with who don't have jobs fall into three camps:

    1. They were never interested in the field but thought it was "easy" and so changed majors. They had failed at something else and thought they could magically succeed as a liberal arts major without doing much work.

    2. People who were interested but lacked the intellectual capacity to do very good work in it. That sucks.

    3. Really unlucky, vaguely unlikeable, or had the unfortunate luck to land themselves married or tied to family in a town where there isn't any work for people in their field and their family or spouse is making it difficult for them to relocate.

    The truth is that there is work for people with liberal arts degrees, but a liberal arts degree isn't for everyone. It's not a default if you can't figure out wtf to do with yourself otherwise.

    Every student out there in a time of economic recession has to own their degree and choices. They have to find internships and experience, whether the career services dept. at their school knows how to help them or not. They should be aided in this by their professors, but if you ask me for help finding work in a city in another state where you spend summers I... well shit. I probably can't help. But I can hook you up with some unpaid editing work at an academic journal.

    And that's ALL. There's value in a degree if you work hard to get the value out of it. But hard work is required.

  2. There's a line in the full article that gets my goat, too.
    "I graduated not knowing how to use Excel, write out a business plan, do basic accounting."

    This is the sort of thing that baffles me: who can't figure out how to use Excel? I mean, you need someone to lean over your shoulder for about 5 minutes and tell you what an equation is. If you need advanced skills, you buy a book.

    Ditto business plans and accounting. I can't do either. But I know I could figure them out if I had to. No direct training in any of these things.

    I wonder if this is a product of ISO 9000 and safety regimes and other forms of standardization: no one is expected to just sit down and learn things - they need to have formal 'training' to be able to do things. I had thought that this was merely an external thing that the beancounters were trying to push on us from above, but maybe it's been internalized by people as something real - you can't learn Excel unless you take a course in it?

    God help us, we're going to wind up teaching students Excel, aren't we.

  3. This may be hopelessly naive, but so be it.

    When I went to college, I had not one ounce of my being devoted to using that information to find a job one day.

    What I thought college was for was for learning how to think, read critically, all of that, all things that I normally still do in the classroom as a poor humanities proffie.

    I know the world has changed. I know what college is "used" for has changed.

    And I think it's too bad.

  4. @DrNathaniel: I totally agree.

    While I do have a background in math, the truth is that I taught myself Excel when I wanted to organize my comic book collection in high school, and then once again when I needed to keep grades as a TA. I think I also used it at my office-monkey job in college, but I just figured out whatever I needed to know.

    Similarly, I was never taught anything about accounting (which has everything to do with organizing data, and nothing to do with math proper), but when I was pressured to be the treasurer at my church, I just figured it out!

  5. @DrNathaniel: This jumped out to me too. The need to blame your major for the lack of skills you could easily learn without having a college degree is bizarre.

    The most hilarious part of the article is where the author is "disheartened" by the non-responses to questions that fundamentally attack the very idea of college education. She then goes on to say she understands as "the language of real-world career preparation was a language they simply didn't speak." They don't speak that language because that's not where their jobs are about! Yet it's all so disheartening. Why didn't my Chaucer professor explain how to format a resume? How come my Communication professor never explained the top 10 networking tips for success!?

    Still, maybe we're being too harsh and the humanities undergrad major and fiction MFA is right to say it's all so pointless. ONWARD!

  6. Welp, all I know is that the (admittedly few) people I know personally in the highest echelons of hiring don't want business and pre-professional BAs. They suck, not to put too fine a point on it. They want people who can identify a problem, find meaningful patterns, synthesize disparate kinds of information, and think (gag) "outside the box." Liberal arts majors.

    The thing we all know here is that liberal arts majors get shitty jobs fresh out of college. Years down the line, they are doing much better.

  7. I think the writer could be thinking much more deeply about this subject. And perhaps that is the lesson here, not that we ought to eliminate an entire school of thought in our universities.

  8. The other thing we remember from our heady undergrad days? The much-vaunted business majors, with their "practical" skills, were the ultimate in knuckle-dragging mouth breathers looking for an easy degree that gave them Fridays off. Could they format an Excel spreadsheet, write up a business, plan, etc? Hell No—and they said as much!
    Also, we wonder how many people who aren't interested in starting their own business/working "clerical" jobs—those that deal with money—know these much-vaunted "necessary practical skills." We realize that moving money around to make it look like it's being produced is where the greedy people hang out these days, but, if the skills needed to play the shell game are the ones we ought to have learned, then we're quite happy with our degree in Regenal Studies.

  9. Read the following article for a counterpoint:

  10. ""So let me ask you something," my husband says, my wonderfully incisive husband who will let me get away with only so much bitterness. "If your school had forced you to declare a career plan or take an accounting class or study Web programming instead of contemporary lit, how would you have felt about it at the time, without the benefit of hindsight?"

    It's a good question, and the answer is, I probably would have transferred."

    WTF?! What the hell does she want? She wants to be a nincompoop and not be accountable. She wants to do whatever the hell she wants and then she wants someone else to make sure she has a good life. Screw her. Life is hard work and requires commitment and persistence, especially if you would like to have a worthwhile one. Sounds like her shitty, unsatisfying life is exactly what she has earned.

  11. I have a totally unemployable Liberal Arts degree, okay. In fact I have three. I took them knowing that. I thought, well at least I will have spent some time doing something I really enjoyed and studying something that I thought was really worth learning, and better to have done that, and then become a paralegal, than to have given up before I started and just gone straight for the paralegal training because OMG I'll never get a job with this. At least I will have spent some of my life doing something really, really cool.

    Now I got a job. As it happens. So it all worked out. But the fact is that along the way I coulda got other jobs. I temped in the summers, I taught word processing two evenings a week and Saturdays in a business college to pay for my undergrad degree, and I was offered a job in publishing the same day I also got an offer for grad school. I turned it down, but I did hesitate; but I knew I wanted to go on to grad school and see what happened.

    And along the way I also learned a little Excel and a little accounting and a little this and that. Granted my current job could make me look (if you buy into the current grad school rhetoric) like one of the winners in a Ponzi scheme that exists to shore up the illusion of the necessity of our unnecessary jobs - there are lots of other things I could have done.

    And that flexibility is what a Liberal Arts degree gives you. It doesn't give you a guaranteed 6-figure income your first year out of school. It's not supposed to. You're supposed to learn how to think, and then use it. That's what we're trying to teach our students to do.

  12. Yeah, all those star business majors the banks have been hiring the past 20 years sure did a great job, didn't they?

  13. From the Salon comments:

    "When I hear recent grads with a BA in anthropology or theater complain about not being able to get a job, I wonder why they studied those subjects in the first place. If you want a job, skip college and learn how to fix cars, or install solar panels, or run cable."

    Exactly. If you're old enough to decide what you want to major in, you're old enough to do some thinking about why you chose that subject and what you ultimately want to do with it.

    The author wants the freedom to choose her major and then an MFA program, but she doesn't want the other side of that freedom: having to take responsibility for her choices.

    But I'm sure it's UVa's fault for not having spelled that out for her.

  14. The author was right to follow her intuition and her interests in her major and her MFA program. And now she can still learn to fix cars, or install solar panels, or (more likely) get a law degree, but she will be a better citizen and a better thinker and be better able to realise her potential in whatever it is she does, because of the education she got first.

    Education pays off in all kinds of ways; money doesn't have to be one of them. Though (actually) it usually is one of them, if you look at the statistics. Just not right out of the box.

  15. "The author was right to follow her intuition and her interests in her major and her MFA program. And now she can still learn to fix cars, or install solar panels, or (more likely) get a law degree..."

    Dear God I hope not a JD....there are too many law schools, the legal education method still belives that young lawyers are apprenticed when the firms want somebody with experience out of the gate, corporations and government cannot absorb the number of new JDs, people are stuck with vast debts, nobody wants to hire a failed lawyer. Better locksmithing school than playing 5 bullet Russian Roulette! Even if she "wins", most BigLaw firms burn through lawyers in five or six years and starting a private practice is EXTREMELY hard.

  16. The thing that people calling for more "practical" curricula ignore is that much of the specific information needed to pursue a particular occupation that students might learn in school today is going to be outdated within a decade. That's even more true for "bleeding edge" professions such as computer science or the various medical fields. I'm not overly fond of the phrase "lifelong learners," but a big part of college is learning how to learn, preferably without having to go back for an expensive, very specific degree every time you want to make a minor (or major) switch in vocational focus, or just stay current enough to keep your present job. That's where skills such as critical thinking, and careful reading, and even writing (or, to be more precise, writing skills such as identifying audience, finding and assessing models, absorbing and deploying the changing vocabulary of a professional subculture, etc. ) come in.

    I suspect that many of the people who are calling for more practical education for 18-22/25-year-olds would like to sell those same students another diploma, or certificate, or other expensive, narrowly-defined credential about once a decade for the rest of their working lives. People who can figure things out on their own aren't particularly good marks, er, customers, for higher-education "entrepreneurs." But, as others have pointed out, they're pretty popular with employers, who realize that their own businesses, and the world in which they operate, will always be changing, and that people who notice and can adapt to the changes, rather than just continuing to do what somebody else taught them until it stops working, are valuable.

  17. My tired eyes just reread "Humanities" as "Humilities."

    And that's pretty much why they matter.


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