Making a Liberal-Arts Education Pay
At the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association convention in November, I had lunch with speech-therapy professors from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and learned a remarkable fact.
Last spring, they told me, every one of their several dozen master’s students had a job lined up before graduation. I laughed and thought of my humanities world, where a good portion of seniors approach graduation with no idea what they’re going to do the day after.
It’s the employment issue, perhaps the hottest subject in higher education at the moment.
On Bill Bennett’s radio show recently, North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory made a promise that incensed college professors across the state. McCrory chided public universities for offering “courses that have no chance of getting people jobs.” Bennett mentioned gender studies, and McCrory bluntly told students that if they like that field, they should go to a private school. “I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job,” he said.
McCrory, a Republican, closed by announcing that he planned to adjust state funding so that it will promote more vocational and technical training.
Another Republican governor, Rick Scott of Florida, said the same thing in an October 2011 radio spot. “I want to spend our money getting people science, technology, engineering and math degrees,” he said, and he singled out anthropology as a field the state just didn’t need.
As expected, these remarks evoked scorn and indignation from educators suspicious of applying market forces to higher education. “Rick Scott to Liberal Arts Majors: Drop Dead,” declared a headline in Mother Jones magazine. Governor Rick Perry of Texas has been called out for similar efforts. Such examples were smoothly fitted into long-standing charges of anti-intellectualism in the Republican Party.
But the employability issue isn’t just a Republican position. In March 2011, the National Governors Association issued a study titled “Degrees for What Jobs?” and proposing “a new vision for higher education that is built on increased focus on the talent and skill needs of key industries in their states.” The study hailed Democrat Christine Gregoire, who was governor of Washington from 2005 to 2013, as a pioneer in the effort. Among the report’s recommendations was the inclusion of business leaders in the design of college curricula.
That suggestion led to jokes in the faculty lounge about human-resources executives from Coca-Cola Co. or Duke Energy Corp. joining a bunch of professors to decide which disciplines to stimulate.
Recently, too, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has teamed with Republican Marco Rubio of Florida on legislation forcing colleges to collect and make available data on the salaries of recent graduates. If the data are broken down by major, don’t expect the “softer” fields to broadcast their position on the ladder.
Most important, U.S. President Barack Obama is on the bandwagon with his “college scorecard,” an initiative described as helping parents and students “compare schools based on a simple criteria [sic]: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”
While college faculty and administrators denounce such employment-focused measures as a corruption of liberal education, voices on the other side have grown louder. Parents fume that their children ran up debts for college and now live in their basements and jump from one dead-end job to the next.
Governors also hear from leaders in industry, research and technology who complain that they have empty slots but can’t find qualified people because colleges aren’t teaching them the skills they require.
Both sides are right. Yes, workforce preparation is foremost, but everyone acknowledges other purposes for college, goals fulfilled by the liberal arts. Full U.S. citizenship requires familiarity with the founding documents and the ideological battles of the 20th century. To become more than just consumers of mass culture, young people need exposure to high art, music and literature. They also need advanced literacy to handle many job tasks, to read and write, argue and reflect.
The “Degrees for What Jobs?” report itself cites “sectors of the economy where innovation, imagination and critical thinking -- knowledge, that is -- are the building blocks” where workers are responsible for “the sheer generation of new ideas.” Business leaders want people who read books, know things about history and politics, spot flimsy arguments and write well.
The real challenge is to blend humanistic and workplace-oriented courses into an efficient curriculum that serves both sides. For four-year colleges, the best model I know of reserves the first two to four semesters for general education in the liberal arts and sciences, the last four to six semesters for advanced, specialized studies well-suited to job openings and to postgraduate studies in high-demand fields.
Several models exist, such as the core-curriculum programs at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, the College of General Studies at Boston University and Emory University’s voluntary core curriculum in which I teach. These programs gear at least a portion of early-college study to great works of civilization, with intense reading and writing about them, leaving the latter two-thirds of college to more immediate real-world demands.
There is one complication, however. To qualify as a “core,” these courses must be filled with the very best works of our civilization. They assign Virgil, not contemporary fiction; W.E.B. Du Bois’s social commentaries, not recent tracts on social networking; Ingmar Bergman’s films, not Michael Moore’s. These works are concerned less with today’s topics than with perennial matters.
To some of us, this is strength. To others, core programs are too narrow, too white-male and Eurocentric. That may be true, but if colleges want to preserve the liberal arts from jobs-obsessed politicians, these curricula are bulletproof. Politicians may make fun of gender studies without reprisal, but none of them will say, “I don’t want students to waste time on ‘The Odyssey,’ the Declaration of Independence and the Cold War.”
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