Liberal Arts, No Regrets
It sounds a little like something from The Onion, suggested headline: “College Professor Listens to NPR on Way from Morning Coffee, Decides to Write Blog Post.”
If only I rated being mocked by The Onion!
Stranger than satire, I’ve had several conversations about college, going to college, kids going to college and so on the last few days, while visiting my family in Portland, getting ready for the new semester at my job back in Abu Dhabi. Driving from my morning coffee in the town of Sandy, Oregon (near where my mom lives in Boring), I heard a report on post-college jobs on WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY (“Study Says Many College Students Underemployed After Graduations“). The report was an interview with University of Ohio economist Richard Vedder, indicating that many college grads end up working as “sales clerks, waiters, janitors and other jobs that don’t require a college degree.”
As per usual, there was some attempt to distinguish between what are typically represented as responsible choices of major–engineering is usually mentioned here–and things that are considered somehow less than serious. The host, Scott Simon, mentioned philosophy. The upshot, however, actually had almost nothing to do with selection of major, and everything to do with the actual structure of what is jokingly called the American economy.
The actual structure of the American economy (and indeed all conceivable economies) precludes, will always preclude, and can only preclude, having both a high rate of college graduation and a high rate of persons employed in “upper middle-class” professional jobs, living in upscale suburbs, consuming at the level that they might aspire to as lured by the love of the genii that dwell in the ever-expanding depths of our virtual imaginaries.
This is hardly a tragedy! And to pretend that the primary problem is a “mismatch” of skills between what students are studying in college and where the most lucrative jobs are is pure, unadulterated hogwash. Yes, engineers are often in demand in the current world. Yes, people with a range of powerful analytic skills, particularly quantitative skills, are likely to have an edge in employment opportunities in the foreseeable future. But, not everyone has the capacity, much less the temperament, for engineering, or accounting, or any other “practical” professional choice of job-path.
Even if people were far more plastic in their desires and capacities than they actually are and we had the hard hearts to track every person with even the slightest chance of actually doing engineering (or pick your choice of quantitatively dense, supposedly promising profession), the result would simply mean a “glut of engineers” (with the associated downward pressure on salaries and opportunities) currently associated with the “glut of lawyers“–albeit perhaps making less trouble.
Dr. Vedder, to be fair, did acknowledge that the problem is partially one of “mismatched expectations,” with people getting degrees in social work and expecting to live upper middle-class lives, and indicating that we simply have many more jobs for sales clerks and waiters than, oh, let’s say distinguished economists and NPR commentators. I would add that this also applies to engineers.
The complicating factor is that folk like the good Dr. Vedder are intent on conceiving of a college education as an “investment,” to paraphrase him, with associated risks, just like investing in the stock market.
This, it would seem to me, is exactly the wrong way to think of education. Ultimately, “investing” in the stock market is a form of gambling, not much different than playing the lottery or a trip to Vegas. And while Dr. Vedder is obviously correct that everything we do in life “has risks,” such truisms don’t really tell us much about what kind of education we should pursue.
Now, the title of this entry suggests I might try to make a full-bodied defense of a liberal arts-style education. I won’t attempt that here. In fact, I don’t know that saying everyone should have the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts would make any more sense than saying everyone should have an engineering degree. I do know that thinking in terms of “investment” and “risk” instead of nurturing capacities and relationships (and capacities that help us nurture relationships, and relationships that help us nurture our capacities) misses the point of a meaningful life and diminishes our collective capacities.
And I do know that my own liberal arts education was a huge plus for me in every sense. Set aside that I eventually completed a doctorate and went on to teach college, my experiences across the disciplines–philosophy, sociology, literature, biology, physics, mathematics, history–and even more so my experience of the liberal arts environment gave me a confidence to think and live on my own terms. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer to the questions and challenges of education, how and what kind to get or provide. Thinking in terms of “what the economy” needs is likely to lead us astray. Intellectual flexibility, emotional resilience, coupled with strong social connections, and long-term but moderate thoughts for health are the bones of individual nourishment. At the collective level the focus should be on humbly thinking what sorts of choices and institutional arrangements are most likely to promote shared respect and dignity.