I’d like to put my position up front: there is NO schism between liberal arts education and jobs. None. So, when you hear the President of the United States, many governors, policy wonks, talking heads and Peter Thiel say that Liberal Arts are not a good career investment (although to be fair, Thiel argues against college entirely, not just Liberal Arts), they are misguided.
There is an irony in most of these statements, because many of those making them actually *have* Liberal Arts degrees. But, I’d like to argue that there’s more to it than irony and short-sightedness. It may not be explicit, but it is present.
I think there’s classism involved.
Remember our context — we live in a time where college degrees are still quite rare (the Census Bureau says we crossed over the 30% mark only in the past few years). But, even that low-ish number is still greatly expanded over even 20 years ago. And if you’ve studied your Pierre Bourdieu, you know the theory of education being a place that passes on social capital.
While I agree that college tuition costs are increasing rapidly and current costs for some institutions are too high, it seems to me that at least some of the argument we are hearing for “practical majors” is rooted in the idea that perhaps only the wealthy should be able to study humanities, arts and culture. Are these not things for the well-to-do? Shouldn’t the working class be studying something that just simply puts them to work?
No, of course not. And that’s why the irony of so many of these folks arguing for more “jobs ROI” from our colleges and universities, while simultaneously wielding power AND holding a Liberal Arts education, seems so thick.
To my opening point, there is no schism between Liberal Arts education and obtaining a first job or a successful professional life. I’m paraphrasing John Dewey (perhaps poorly) when I say it, but I do believe that an occupation is not the purpose of higher education, but it is a logical outcome. As a career center director, I know first hand that those with Liberal Arts degrees can have both short-term and long-term career success, while also studying arts, culture and humanities. I see it all the time (and the AAUC noted in a recent study that Liberal Arts majors actually make more than those from professional programs during their peak earning years).
We do not need to spend more time steering students into so-called “practical majors.” Students need to pursue academic areas that intrigue them and in which they can do good, hard academic work. We do need to spend more time helping students find contexts to which they can apply their Liberal Arts skills.
Yes, we know that the philosophy major is not going to find an organization to pay him or her to sit around and just think deeply. But that’s a straw man argument. There are plenty of organizations who would like a student who can critically analyze situations; who can see varying perspectives; and who can write competently. Problem solved, philosophy student. Let’s take those highly desired skills and find a good fit for you!
Our challenge is to have our students tackle these post-college questions earlier. We need to make this a core expectation of the college experience from semester one. Students should not skip over the very important steps of academic exploration. However, they need to undertake this exploration in parallel with examination of potential industries and functional areas of interest. When done together, students have the agency to set a positive academic AND career trajectory for themselves.
image credit: San Jose State University Career Center
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