Make Liberal Arts Great Again?

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.

21 thoughts on “Make Liberal Arts Great Again?

  1. Dan

    > postgraduation success, more than ever, requires a demanding curriculum

    And being demanding means that people will fail. Significant numbers of people will fail. Professors will need to keep large stacks of metaphorical dimes.

    A college degree can only be a useful discriminator if it’s hard to get–which is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition. If everyone can get one, then having one doesn’t tell a hiring manager anything useful about the candidate. If only few get them, but they’re awarded in trial by combat, that also doesn’t tell a hiring manager anything useful (unless physical combat is a useful skill for that manager). We need excellence, even as we deny it.

    C.S. Lewis anticipated it well in 1959, writing as the demon Screwtake “What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence.”

    1. SHG Post author

      If a student can master a “demanding curriculum,” great. The problem is less that it’s a useful discriminator than that when it does “discriminate” by some failing, the solution isn’t to either accept that some will fail or help those who fail, but dumb down the curriculum to achieve the mandated outcome of no one failing.

  2. B. McLeod

    It’s a good time for young people to consider blue collar trade schools. HVAC, plumbing, auto mechanics. Things that can’t be off-shored to India or China.

    1. Howl

      John W. Gardner –
      “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

  3. DaveL

    The issue is not that every-level jobs suddenly require a master’s degree. The issue is that well-paid jobs requiring education and intellect are now being offshore along with the unskilled jobs. I expect those every-level positions were merely advertised that way to keep other candidates away and clear a path for somebody specific with an inside connection.

    Making everybody spend another three or four years and another six figures on schooling won’t change that underlying dynamic.

    1. LY

      The issue is that Masters and PHDs are now a dime a dozen in the hiring market. Why settle for the Bachelors (or trade school associates) that the job really needs when you can get better for the same or less cost. Of course that presumes that the Masters and PHDs coming out now are actually still better than the Bachelors of 20+ years ago.

  4. Sam

    “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.”

    Real experience trumps any degree when applying for a job outside of academia. You criticized Peter Thiel because he offered recently accepted students a lot of cash and job if they skipped school – those who took it had experience and cash. Graduates have no experience and debt. Do you still feel the same about Thiel’s plan?

    1. SHG Post author

      First, if you don’t want to leave your email, that’s fine, but then your comment gets trashed because you’re not special. Second, your comment is idiotic. (If anyone is interested, here’s what I had to say about Thiel’s Fellows.) Some positions require specialized education. Some don’t. How you can be that dense and still remember to breathe is a mystery.

  5. KeyserSoze

    You nailed it with the last sentence.

    A university professor is nature’s way of making more university professors, not producing someone who necessarily does something. My wife is a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college. My belief is that she is probably the last or next to last generation of that at least in the small schools. The public is finally waking up to the fact that all is not well in the higher ed. world and I think a shakeout is long overdue.

    1. SHG Post author

      Some degrees have utility outside of the Academy. Some have none. Some say that the degree has value because, substance aside, it reflects the ability to perform functions life research, write and think critically. Frankly, I know many academics with Ph.D.s who can’t do any of these things very well.

      1. KeyserSoze

        A theory currently floating around on the inter-tube is that degrees are a method of virtue signaling to others. A high school degree was a signal to potential employers that you could show up on time and have a certain level of skills in math and reading. A higher education degree said you can do more difficult stuff.

        Unfortunately this is not the case anymore for many various reasons. A degree has to mean something, much like the dollar in your wallet.

  6. KP

    The first test of any student is to research the job prospects of your degree before starting. Obviously many fail..

    Perhaps we should return to the world of the curmudgoens on here, when only 5% went to university, and admit the Socialists were wrong when they said that tertiary education for everyone was the answer.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s rather surprising that people pursue graduate degrees without the slightest clue of whether they will ever find gainful employment at the end. But then, even when they do know, they still tend to believe that they, not the other 99%, will be the successful one because they’re special.

  7. Scott Spencer

    I know I am late to the party here…..

    With the shrinking undergraduate candidate pool we have to push graduate level degrees or I might be out of a job and have to do something with my life other than complain that students are dumb and faculty are no better, while collecting my fatty paycheck and getting a free two weeks off at Christmas…..

    1. SHG Post author

      Better late then never. Is there a shrinking undergrad pool? I was reliably informed that everyone was supposed to get a college degree, thus reducing them to the equivalent of a high school degree 50 years ago and requiring an advanced degree to maintain your salary level.

      1. Scott Spencer

        Late again, stupid work….

        But yes the first time undergraduate (traditional freshmen types) pool is shrinking by up about 15% over the next 10 years or so. Lowered birth rates being the main reason for this (or so I am told).

        So we push graduate degrees on people that don’t need them and certainly can only afford them with loans that they will never be able to repay.

        1. SHG Post author

          Stupid work, indeed. Would you please get ahead of the curve so this is part of the timely discussion? I need your input.

Comments are closed.