(Editor’s Note: The author of this post, Clint Baldwin, wears several hats at George Fox University: Assistant Professor of International Studies; Director, Center for Global Studies; and Director, Center for Peace and Justice.)
My faculty colleagues and I in History and Political Science all recently read a disconcerting article offered in The Daily Beast titled, “The 13 Most Useless Majors from Philosophy to Journalism.”
Without doing too much of an injustice, I think that it is fair to distill the article’s message down to the simple formula, “liberal arts bad; professional programs good.”
Now, if you’ve ever read the “comments” section at the end of online articles, you’ll understand the radical nature of my next statement. I actually found a lot of the comments on the article offered at the end by readers rather astute – some significantly better than the article itself.
The peanut gallery seems more coherent than the article itself.
Perhaps such an occurrence actually is an argument in favor of the article’s diatribe against the efficacy of journalism and other such liberal arts endeavors as beneficial majors. Not really; but the clarity of some of the thoughts in that section in comparison to the article’s line of reasoning did make me think of it.
I agree in general with the article that it should be of reasonably significant consideration that one be able to earn a viable, living-wage (however we want to define such a thing – and this is no small consideration in and of itself) in relation with the studies one is pursuing. However, suggesting that somehow the majors noted in the article are akin to “useless” because of a perceived or actual lack of procuring immediate employment amounts to a grossly inadequate understanding of the necessary and diverse socio-political competencies that are vital to creating and maintaining some semblance of a healthy and stable civic order.
If we want to mount a defense of the necessity of such liberal arts oriented disciplines as history and political science, we could do far worse than beginning with the various studies relating to social capital that have been undertaken over the years by Robert Putnam — Harvard’s political science and public policy professor in the Kennedy School of Government. His body of work is both deeply scholarly and immediately pertinent as relates to showcasing the need for exactly the kind of skills that The Daily Beast article suggests are circumspect.
(See for instance Putnam’s: Making Democracy Work; Better Together; Bowling Alone [both the Bowling Alone and Better Together texts have websites full of material beyond the texts themselves]; and E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century)
As well, another recent article that offers vital and healthy countering perspectives to ideas put forth in The Daily Beast is located in the Spring 2012 edition of the journal Advance published by the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) which has 116 member universities and 69 affiliate member universities in 25 countries. The article, “Not Your Grandmother’s Future: The Tension of Preparing Liberal Arts Graduates for Tomorrow’s Careers,” showcases commentary from various vice-presidents, provosts, and campus directors advocating for an engaged liberal arts education.
Again, however, interestingly enough we don’t need to range that far or that deeply to obtain such helpful answers. As was noted in the beginning of this piece, at the time of its being written, though perhaps a bit self-serving at points, the readers of The Daily Beast article almost to a person recognized the inanity of the argument being made. My above suggestions simply underscore an understanding they have already recognized.
It is intriguing that we also read this article during a time when it has still recently been recognized by medical schools that they often prefer well-educated liberal arts majors to straight science majors due to liberal arts majors having an ability to extrapolate from data they receive and effectively interpersonally communicate it with patients and colleagues around them. That is to say, it’s not only what you know, but your ability to apply it well that matters.
This orientation related to medical schools is actually also a noted preference by law and business schools too. James Engell, Gurney Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, offers this understanding in an essay he writes. In the essay, Engell refers to and quotes some significant professional figures and professional associations specifically arguing exactly for the efficacy and necessity of the liberal arts that I am purporting in my response here: James Freedman, Harvard College alumnus, former Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and former president of Dartmouth; Linda S. Doyle, a former dean at Harvard Business School and former president and CEO of Harvard Business School publishing; and The Association of American Law Schools. Engell moves towards ending his article by offering a thought that includes reflections by the eminent Harvard educated sociologist Robert Bellah – elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1967, received the National Humanities Medal in 2000, and received the American Academy of Religion Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion in 2007. Engell writes that whatever utilitarian functions higher education possesses, “it is crucial to combine and integrate that function with other aims and ends, with what Bellah calls “education for the development of character, citizenship, and culture.”
Finally, I looked at the data related to the Georgetown Study from which the article in The Daily Beast culled much of its materials. If one looks at just page 4 of that study, the whole thing seems rather ridiculous as it showcases that essentially majors from all across the spectrum (professional and liberal arts) are suffering significantly and they only speculate as to who might fare well in the future. What the data does actually show as immediately pertinent is that the unemployment rate for all college graduates is at 8.9 % and for non-college graduates it is at 22.9%. Hmmmmm. I think I’d stick with going to college and note that while the college vs. non-college data is statistically significant the other factors largely add up to falling within statistical margin of error.
Actually, the data for majors all fall closely within statistical margin of error unless you want to become an architect. This “architect factor” adds a significant anomaly to their interpretation of the data in which they suggest that majors more closely aligned with specific occupational employment experience less risk of unemployment post-graduation. That is, an architectural major is considered a “professional” oriented major as opposed to a “liberal arts” major and yet has less prospects of employment based on the data than a liberal arts major.
In light of what seems to be a lack of any positive data backing their positions and seeing the advice above that is offered in this reflection of significant professionals in major fields advocating for the importance of liberal arts learning, it seems both wise and logical to bet on historic precedent rather than unsubstantiated, seemingly random speculation.
So, unless we really want to move specifically toward giving up ancient commitment to liberal arts and its virtually limitless gifts to society and move toward becoming solely vo-techish in our pursuits in the academy, I would think we would want to take articles like the one offered in The Daily Beast with a significant bit of skepticism, with that proverbial grain of salt.
Instead of abandonment of millennia of tradition, why don’t we instead simply make sure to teach our students that it is holistically a compilation of what-you-know, how you apply what-you-know, and who-you-know that are important factors in becoming fully immersed members of society? This certainly seems a reasonable enough approach.
And, really, aren’t we already doing this…isn’t this the whole point of adding/requiring/encouraging internship components alongside theoretical study? Theory and praxis meet. Thinking and action belong together.