Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Should we kill the liberal arts major?"


Unless you're talking about one particular liberal arts major who's done something horrible and deserving of death. In which case: Maybe. But if you're talking about the major in general, concpetual terms, then No.

This question is the basis for an article in Salon. It includes many, many face-slappable moments. Or, at the very least, moments where you want to hit your own head against a wall.

Here is a short list:

Is the recent college grad with the psychology major now working as a babysitter because she majored in psychology? Or is it, perhaps, becuase, as she says, she was a lousy student? Or is it, perhaps, because we're in a lousy economy with high unemployment?

Are young people majoring in the humanities unemployable because they can't "do anything with their major?" Meaning they should have majored in something more do-with-able? And if that's true, then what, exactly, is that more-do-with-able major?

The liberal arts are supposed to teach you how to read and write and speak and think. Last time I checked, those skills were all highly transferable into a number of jobs. You ought to be able to "do" a lot with those skills, even if your major was not narrowly defined as a jobs-training program. And there are PLENTY of people currently employed who do a lousy job of all of those things, so it seems to me we should be doing MORE on the liberal arts, not less.

So no, there aren't all that many job openings for "poet." But a decent career counselor at a college should be able to steer an English major into almost any job he wants. Virtually every employer out there is despearately seeking people who can process information and communicate clearly.

Of course, if you insist on defining the liberal arts super-narrowly, then yes, perhaps they are "useless." If you think the actual educational content of being an English major is limited to knowing and being able to share facts about particular pieces of old literature, then your skills may not be very transferable. If you think the actual purpose of learning history is limited to knowing and sharing facts about particular times and places, without any transferability of themes and concepts to our own world, then yes, you're not much use to anyone outside of academia. But who ever said those things were the points of those fields of study?

Well, maybe some lousy professors did. I'll grant you that. We have far too many people teaching their subject from deep within the chamber of expertise, where things only matter for their own, pure, Platonic essence-y sake. We don't do a good job of connecting the benefits of being a well-rounded and thoughtful person, and the skills acquired through deep reading, writing, and discussion, with the outside world of work. So shame on us.

But if the problem is too-narrowly-focused teachers and courses, then come on, guys--let's fix that bathwater of focus; don't toss out the baby of, you know, our entire history and body of knowlege.

Also, just by the way, if we really are going to start talkong about college as nothing more than a jobs-training program, then good luck trying to suck $100,000+ out of families for the privilege of attending.

Training may make you an employee, but education makes you a person.

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