Louis Menand’s talk at Swarthmore on Friday pushed me towards some additional thoughts on the liberal arts, higher education and the humanities.
My first response is to pick up on one of a number of statistics that Menand reviewed in the first part of his talk. We already know that small undergraduate-only liberal-arts colleges like Swarthmore, of all types and selectivity, educate a very small portion of the overall undergraduate population in the United States. But Menand pointed out in addition that all of the disciplines that fall under the typical heading of “arts & sciences” at colleges and universities, the disciplines most commonly identified as part of the ‘liberal arts’ (very much including disciplines like biology, economics, and computer science), grant a shrinking minority of all undergraduate degrees in the United States. The majority are degrees that are fully conceived, taught and taken as pre-professional training in a specific field or vocation, with business and finance-related degrees being the largest plurality of those.
So you might legitimately wonder: why are we talking about the suitability of liberal arts subjects for the contemporary U.S. job market? If the growth in expressly, explicitly pre-professional and vocational degrees has paced almost exactly the growth of structural underemployment in the United States, shouldn’t that be the issue? If there are more students than ever at every kind of institution pursuing degrees that promise specifically to prepare them for a career and they are either not getting jobs or not getting the jobs they were allegedly prepared to get, shouldn’t that be the problem?
There are complications, there always are. As Menand observed, what the elite private institutions do, whether in their curricula or in other institutional policies, often drives other institutions, and so they understandably are the focus of a particular kind of concern. Liberal arts graduates may be a smaller group but they also form the bulk of the meritocratic elite, who may justifiably be the target of social criticism–and some vocational graduates might protest that the social privileges of that elite lead to them getting positions which ought to go to people with specific appropriate training and qualifications. Liberal arts institutions in public systems may be the so-called ‘flagship’ campuses which take more than their share of the resources available (though I feel compelled to add that there are ‘flagship’ public institutions which in fact rely on public finds for a very small proportion of their budgets, like the University of Virginia).
Nevertheless, if it’s true that there’s a connection between underemployment and the skill and knowledge developed through investment in higher education–a proposition that is accepted in less noxiously politicized form even by the Obama Administration and most other mainstream policy experts–‘liberal arts’ majors really shouldn’t be the first thing we’re talking about unless somehow we can demonstrate a very direct correspondence between underemployed recent graduates and those majors in particular. What I suspect we should be talking about instead are students incurring high levels of debt to pursue highly vocational degrees aimed at professions with very few available jobs and/or very low relative salaries, especially from universities and colleges with poor graduation rates and other issues of underperformance. Provocations about “useless majors” are a distraction from that conversation.