The Usefulness of Uselessness, Redux

Faculty who believe in the liberal arts approach and who think this means that there ought to be some kind of firewall between what students study and what they do in their careers or anything else in their lives after graduation have a growing number of antagonists to contend against, most recently, several conservative governors who have announced that they will push their state’s public university system to eliminate or de-emphasize majors and departments that don’t have direct vocational objectives.

I’m one of those faculty. I’m working now on a long essay about why I think a liberal arts approach is still the right thing for most of higher education, but here’s a shorter thought.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I have no qualms about saying that a well-designed liberal arts education offers the best outcomes even in terms of employability–but “well-designed” in this case means, in part, that the connections between what you study and what you do in life must be indirect, flexible, and unpredictable. At least some liberal arts faculty tend to believe so fastidiously in that proposition, rising against any talk of usefulness or skills or careers, that they entirely cede the field of struggle to the most malicious and manipulative critics.

And yet it is very rare to find a faculty member who believes so wholly in this understanding of the liberal arts that they reject any possible life outcomes for students which do not tie them tightly to academic or scholarly institutions. Virtually every faculty member I know delights in the wide range of careers that former students have undertaken, and treasures in particular any story of how some aspect of their experience as a student relates to their later work–even when a former student describes how work and life have called into question the relevance or accuracy of something that student studied in college.

I understand–and share–fears about designing an undergraduate program of study which specifically anticipates a particular vocation or career. There’s one thing that I think we could do for our students (former and current) far more than we are doing, however.

I don’t think it’s possible to convince the current wave of Republican governors that anthropology is not “a useless major” or that the problem of employability in the contemporary American economy is not a result of inadequate vocational training, largely because I don’t think the governors in question are genuinely trying to deal with underemployment or engage in a careful argument about what education should be. They’re returning to a favorite scapegoat, the useless liberal professors, and blaming them for structural unemployment in addition to all their other sins.

But there are important actors that we can convince–or maybe support is the right word. Many employers are already convinced that a graduate who can write, speak and think well, who has learned to ask open-ended questions, who can find the tools they need to deal with problems both known and unknown, who knows how to know, is worth far more to them than the graduate who has memorized some rote procedures to perform on preset challenges. Now one problem might be that liberal arts institutions aren’t actually producing those graduates, and another might be that there aren’t enough students prepared to become those graduates. Yet another might be that there is some better way to couple the spirit of the liberal arts to practical or problem-based learning. Those are different issues.

But what we could do is give those employers more reasons to believe that they’re generally right, to tell more specific, concrete or illustrative stories about how almost anything that a liberal arts student studies can have a payoff–sometimes in what that person does directly at work, sometimes in how they approach life and its catalyzing relationship to work. Not as a promise that a particular major has a particular utility, but yes, as a series of assurances of the generativity of liberal arts for the economy, for the society, for the world. Those stories have to be more than vague hand-waving or enigmatic koans in order to give sympathizers something to fight back against the push to reduce higher education to a meanly-imagined vocational core.

Even specific vocational training needs something to suggest the unexplored possibilities, the unexamined norms, the reasons why and wherefore, all the more so in a moment of technological and economic disruption where no career or life can be taken for granted or seen as secure.

To tell the many stories of the diverse consequences of liberal education to the many people eager or ready to hear them, professors and administrators not only have to be unashamed and unafraid of those stories but also be out there in the world more among our former students–not just the ones we’ve taught personally but the ones that all our colleagues have taught. Being out there means, sometimes, that we’ll hear about the students we confused or disappointed, about the unnecessary or unhelpful limits that our curricula imposed upon them, about the ways in which we haven’t always lived up to our own belief in liberal education. We need to hear that, too, alongside the stories which more closely fit our belief that it all turns out for the best.

We need to hear it all so that we can speak those stories back–and help others to tell them as well. Staying above the fray when someone is sawing down your perch is a bad idea.

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10 Responses to The Usefulness of Uselessness, Redux

  1. Withywindle says:

    I would distinguish more clearly between liberal-arts institutions and liberal-arts majors–I’m assuming that public universities aren’t what you mean by the former, although they have the latter.

    I think I’ve already given you various sour & despairing comments about the collapse of higher education; the short version is, “most colleges are high schools anyway, so it doesn’t matter if the students aren’t taking liberal arts. It’s not as if they’re really going to college.”

  2. I can strongly support the value of a liberal-arts education for everyone, at every kind of institution. But I don’t feel any parallel confidence about liberal-arts majors. I don’t feel prepared to say “Don’t worry about a vocation! Major in English, and figure out the vocation afterward.”

    I wish journalists would spend more time exploring the gulf between those two ways of framing the issue. I’m not a fan of conservative governors meddling in curricula at all. But if I were going to mount a defense of the liberal arts, I’d take my stand on general education requirements for everyone. At many institutions, we’ve watered those down and retreated to departmental fiefdoms.

  3. I would share that sentiment, Ted, though not necessarily in terms of a gen ed core curriculum. Liberal arts, if it means anything, is about the overall philosophy of an educational institution, not a defense of every specific curricular choice made by specific departments or even of the proposition that the curriculum should be left to departments to plan in isolation from one another. That’s pretty much the thrust of the longer piece that I’m working on: while various governors and critics are wrong and in many cases malicious, neither do existing curricula at many institutions (public and private, selective and not) actually reflect much of the spirit of the liberal arts, either. If we believe in the proposition that it is a bad idea to fit our curricula to narrowly satisfy the perceived needs of particular employers, then there are some corollary propositions that should follow about how you build “predictable unpredictability” into a college experience.

  4. john theibault says:

    You’ve probably already seen that Brad DeLong has responded in obtuse Brad DeLong rather than sensible Brad DeLong mode to your post: As if you harbor any particular hostility to a well-constructed course on the fall of Microsoft, much less determinants of real wage growth in nineteenth and twentieth century America on “liberal arts” grounds. Or as if he could guarantee that every student would learn more of vocational value from studying the determinants of wage growth in nineteenth and twentieth century America than they would from studying colonial African material culture.

    Like you, I don’t think I’d want to take my stand primarily on general education — liberal arts as leavening for vocational majors to provide them with the flexibility to deal with continual change. Instead, I’d want to emphasize commonalities of approach across liberal arts majors that make them “vocation ready,” combined with distinct inflections in each major that lead them to be particularly useful in different career paths. The major limitation does not seem to me to be that liberal arts majors don’t teach marketable skills so much as that liberal arts faculty do not know how to advise students on how to break into career paths other than teaching and scholarship.

  5. Valerie says:

    I was a liberal arts major in the 80’s. So was my husband. We have paid top dollar to afford our children university educations in the liberal arts, because we believe that the flexibility of mind encouraged by learning a variety of different frameworks for making sense of the world makes a difference in the ability to be effective in whatever direction one might choose to go professionally. Certainly, this has been our experience. After 20 years as a primary care physician, my husband’s career growth in the administration of outpatient clinical medicine benefits greatly from the cause-and-effect models to which he was exposed as a history major back in the day. My own major in economics with a bunch of French Literature on the side has proved surprisingly helpful in raising children and in being a one-woman IT department for a small-company. It also informs the things I teach my karate students.

    When we can’t know what the world will ask of us, preparing ourselves with different ways of thinking about things is probably the best possible thing we can do. Learning how to make a cogent argument doesn’t hurt one bit, either.

  6. nord says:

    I hear what Brad is saying, BUT, in his terms, it is the difference between teaching undergrad economics at Berkeley or Penn vs. undergraduate economics at Hass or Wharton. Could business school students be taught “write, speak and think well, who has learned to ask open-ended questions, who can find the tools they need to deal with problems both known and unknown, etc..”?

    Yes, of course, but that isn’t how it works. Writing and speaking has emphasis, but having any interest in something outside the comfort zone/narrow focus of finance, IT, and commerce, like for example, colonial africa? No way.

  7. Sarah says:

    I don’t really understand what a university education would look like that could provide graduates with the hard skills necessary in the word force. Swarthmore social science graduates go into dozens of difference professions, each with a few, or maybe many ‘hard skills’ that could potentially be taught to undergrads. So Swarthmore should teach journalism and law and R and copy-editing and bookkeeping and social media marketing and GIS and…? How are students supposed to know which of these will be useful? I don’t think there is any one major or coherant plan of study that could completely prepare almost any humanities and social science swat grad that I know for their career almost 10 years later – I don’t see how this is really a problem, except that most of the ways of getting that knowledge after graduation are expensive (not as expensive as Swarthmore though).

  8. Withywindle says:

    I may even come up with a post on this subject myself, doubtless repetitious. But I’ll start by saying you really have to distinguish between what is appropriate for the elite–i.e., Swat students and their peers–and the mass of students in the public universities for whom the governors are responsible. Swat students have different job prospects, and their skills when they emerge with a history major, say, are quite different from what you emerge with from a public university. Most bluntly: where I went to graduate school, the faculty admitted that their undergraduate majors with A averages were not equipped to enter their graduate programs. You should acknowledge that gap in any defense of the liberal arts you mount.

    Security word is “Artless Nedje,” which sounds like a character from the Dutch translation of Oliver Twist.

  9. I was told at my SLAC that employers would value my ability to think like a mathematician or economist even if I never did math or economics on the job. The logic skills were the true value.

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