The joke around my college campus was that the reason all the buildings on the engineering quad were different colors was so that engineers would know which building to go to, since they couldn’t read the names on the buildings. We were so funny.
But education, like politics and fashion, keeps moving the hemlines up and down so they have something new to say, the last big idea, the one that would fix everything, having failed miserably, will finally be fixed by the next big idea. Plus, it gives wannabe Ph.D.’s something to write their dissertation about. The solution they came up with was STEM. Learn to code and the future is yours, they told padawans. But, of course, it wasn’t that simple.
Contrary to what many undergraduates think, a bachelor’s degree in a high demand field is not a golden ticket to career success.
As my “Higher Ed Gamma” partner in crime Michael Rutter has observed, it is simply not true that vocationally aligned bachelor’s degrees, even in the sciences, will get graduates hired in their field of study.
To wit … “If anything, the numbers point to an oversupply of skills, says Hal Salzman, a sociologist at Rutgers University. In a 2018 paper, he and colleagues showed that only about 60 to 70 percent of U.S. computing and engineering graduates land jobs in STEM, dropping to between 10 and 50 percent for those studying life sciences, physical sciences and math.
I saw this with my own eyes, as my son, newly minted mechanical engineering graduate of MIT, searched for jobs, only to see that entry-level positions in boring jobs for mediocre companies paying unimpressive wages required a master’s degree. Computer scientists with mad coding skillz did far better, to be fair, but the poor schmuck who got a degree in math was screwed.
So if vocationally-directed degrees weren’t the golden ticket, then what?
In most cases, a liberal arts education, supplemented with specific transferable skills, represents the best preparation for long-term success.
Sure, it is helpful to acquire foundational and technical knowledge as well as training in areas like Excel and project management and research methods. But it’s precisely because a B.A. or a B.S. isn’t the end of the line, majors matter far less than the skills and range of knowledge that students acquire and are able to demonstrate through projects and activities.
Wait, what? Wasn’t the generic liberal arts degree the very problem that STEM was supposed to solve? Surely we’re not going back to wearing bell bottoms again.
It’s time for faculty and administrators to be blunt: postgraduation success, more than ever, requires a demanding curriculum that includes extensive writing, facility with data and statistics, and extensive opportunities for collaboration and critical thinking.
What’s curious is that the word “demanding” does a lot of heavy lifting here. Some of us have long wondered what happened to intellectual rigor. An awful lot of people in education, professors on chairs with rich people’s names on them, just don’t seem particularly smart these days, and say some pretty shallow things. And if they aren’t all that bright, how much could they demand of their students, coming in with minds made of mush and leaving with minds made of . . . other mush.
As an aside, throwing “collaboration” into the mix is jarring. Why does education adore collaboration? A camel is a horse designed by committee, and everyone who has ever worked on a team knows there is at least one, if not a majority, of people who would best serve the cause by fetching lunch. The nature of collaboration is to reduce thought to its lowest common denominator. Why this is not just a virtue, but an absolute given, remains a mystery to me.
So is the new fashion trend in education the return to a rigorous, traditionally-grounded liberal arts education, where every student learns to think by learning from the great thinkers and write from the great writers? Not exactly.
For the past century, the more selective liberal arts colleges were, first and foremost, prep schools for graduate and professional education. Institutions like Oberlin and Swarthmore sent a grossly disproportionate share of graduates to success in doctoral programs, med schools, law schools and advanced training in the arts or the caring professions, like social work.
Recognizing the fact that a B.A. or B.S. wasn’t a job ticket or a terminal degree, liberal arts college faculty didn’t worry about requirements because the whole educational experience was developmental and holistic, emphasizing writing, discussion, logical reasoning and critical self-reflection.
First, it’s not exactly true that the “more selective liberal arts colleges” were mere feeders to grad school, just as it’s not exactly true that Oberlin and Swarthmore are representative of selective colleges, although they might be perfect if one seeks an advanced degree in social work. But a bachelors from Harvard was perfectly suited for a remunerative career in investment banking at dad’s firm.
Second, if the four years of college, at not insignificant expense of tuition and opportunity cost, is kindergarten for grad school, because it’s not as if we should expect students to learn anything useful in high school anymore, it shifts the entire concept of education from a necessary evil to achieve one’s career goals into prolonged adolescence, great expense and almost a career in itself. It’s almost as if the students should remain students forever so that their teachers have plenty of people to teach forever.
We have a duty to make it far clearer that a high-quality higher education isn’t vocational or technical training.
Above all, we need to reaffirm the value of what a liberal arts college education traditionally offered: preparation for a lifetime of learning and living.
A lifetime of learning suddenly takes on a different meaning when its purpose isn’t to actually do something with your education, but to get to the next degree.