In a recent New York Times article (and I kind of want to punch myself for just typing that), Kate Zernike discusses degree selection and the adjustment colleges and universities are making due to shifts in the social and economic environment. Some schools are doing away with liberal arts degrees like English and philosophy because of a lack of connection between the subject matter and the future profession. It’s not really that the universities don’t see the connection (though their arguments aren’t particularly compelling: you need to know how to write well in the professional world), it’s that enrollments are down which makes me think that the students and their families don’t see the connection.
When I selected a major, I was “strongly encouraged” to select business. Ah, that precarious time in my life when I wasn’t confident enough to fight the power and study something that inspired me. Ah well, the business degree has come in handy. Or has it?
I kind of envied those more educated in the humanities; they are so much better at interesting conversation. My grasp of the classics is seriously lacking. Canterbury Tales? I have no idea. I also hate opera and the symphony for anyone keeping score on how unsophisticated I am. All those things people are supposed to pretend they like? I can’t muster the energy. But books? Ooooh, how I love books.
I hear discussion about the balance of the liberal arts and the more “practical” elements of the curriculum. And those are both important. But I think I learned the most at college outside of the classroom. And I am not talking about beer bongs and fraternity parties. There’s a social element that I also think is very important, which is also achieved through a liberal arts education. I’m not defending the practicality of that kind of education just based on the social aspects of college life. Just saying it needs to be discussed.
I know that colleges and universities are businesses and their product is the new graduate. And so maybe you (or they) measure the quality of the product based on the first job out of school. But for the person (and their parents or other influencers) entering school; paying for school, there is a potential lifetime of impact that education is going to have on the individual. Colleges make decisions around getting their product out the door, consumers make their decisions taking into account a much longer product life. See the disparity?
People need to think about how the university and the degree are viewed by employers throughout the life of the individual; specifically in the argument about whether or not a liberal arts education is relevant anymore. First job out of school? Your degree can be really important, especially if you aren’t using personal connections to get it (and honey, if you’ve got them, use them). As time passes, the balance of focus shifts away from the education and toward experience. At some point in your career, is it possible that people won’t give a rip about whether you went to college at all? Yeah, totally. And frequently where I work. I guess what I am saying is that the discussion I see isn’t really about whether or not a more “practical” degree choice is going to impact you throughout your career, but the part it plays in preparing you for your first job. Because all that foundational good learnin’ that helps you through life? Well much of that can be achieved through a course of study focused on the humanities. I mean, did anyone take any philosophy classes? That stuff is hard! I took an art class once that almost made me cry (how am I supposed to know what the artist was feeling when he painted that hub cap? A hubcap!).
I don’t really have any agenda in defending the liberal arts education, now that I have totally written about how it mostly only matters in your first job out of college. My degree is in business. And I am not sure if it’s just the romantic notion of reading and writing, art, etcetera that really appeals to me. But let me throw 2 more things at you:
Waldorf schools (AKA Steiner Schools). I saw part of a documentary about different types of education in some parts of Europe relative to their more western alternatives. You know, “we” (westerners) start kids out young learning the alphabet and numbers. In the Waldorf system, children engage in play until the age of 7. It’s supervised play, but it’s different than what we do here. And studies have found that countries that utilize the Waldorf system actually have students that not only catch up but surpass the standardized test scores (math and science) of western countries later in their education. I can’t name the studies…I thought I was just watching an interesting TV show, not prepping for a blog post. But they are out there. Stick with me. I don’t really understand all the factors that underlie the outcome. I’m just saying that there is something there. And maybe it’s not just about little kids but bigger kids too. Maybe there is a benefit of not pushing a college student into to a too narrowly-focused field of study so soon. Maybe, where play can be foundational to grade school learning, we can extrapolate that exploring the arts can be foundational to later learning. I don’t know. Just something to think about.
Second thing: Daniel Pink. I’ve mentioned his book, “A Whole New Mind” a couple of times before but am guessing only the few die-hard One Louder readers among you (not sure you are out there of if that’s just the crickets) could even recall. Anyway, the book talks about the shift in the current economy from a workplace that values left-brain thinking to one that outsources left-brain dominant tasks and see right-brain thinking as a valued talent differentiator. Well, if you think about the “professions” versus the liberal arts, which one is more right-brain focused and which more left? Mmm hmm. Great book, by the way, if you are looking for something to read. Of course I liked it; Righty McRightbrain over here.
I’m not qualified to advise anyone on education decisions, universities or individuals. And I am definitely not defending or promoting anything. I’m just saying that I think what we are experiencing is a point-in-time perspective that is reactive to the job market and that the solution may not be as simple as it seems.
(And I am on some pretty impressive cold meds right now, so don’t blame my USC education for my coherent writing skills today…or lack thereof)