Shell Game

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.

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4 Responses to Shell Game

  1. Withywindle says:

    If there are shrinking numbers of liberal arts majors, this indicates that the people you need to persuade are not administrators but students. After all, if the students aren’t showing up, shouldn’t a responsible administrator cut the number of faculty in that major? I know there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here. However, if you are failing to convince the student body of your utility/attractiveness/virtue, shouldn’t you consider that they might be right?–that what you need is not better PR (in a partisan context, what political parties always tell themselves before the next crushing defeat, and their final willingness to make themselves over) but genuinely to change yourselves.

    Sec word: Luke Tionaly, the hero of a short-lived Canadian drama about the medicos of the Mounties.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    So Menand (and I) are talking about the entirety of American higher education here, and at that scale there are two very different “persuasions” involved. The first would be addressing students who select into a pre-professional program at the application and the second would be those students enrolled in an instititution that offers both liberal arts and pre-professional degrees.

    In the case of the first, you’re trying to create the conditions for informed choices among 18-year olds who haven’t yet arrived in college–that’s something that has to happen at the level of the overall public debate, and something that the supply of types of programs, among other factors, may influence.

    The second is the really interesting case in terms of faculty behavior and practice–it’s where the student has to decide and they decide to go for the pre-professional program. That’s where I’d agree with you: liberal arts faculty who hold themselves too refined or distant from explaining why what they teach matters or is virtuous or is useful will lose out in that choice and they ought to, even if they’re potentially a better choice.

    However, as far as the cutting goes, there is always the point that another of academia’s missions is to look out for the things that matter even in times where the popular view is that they don’t. The value of tradition, you might say…

  3. Withywindle says:

    My general critique continues to be that I fear you are conflating categories in your arguments. Specifically, here, your ambition to persuade people–students–that you can judge utility for them, judge better than they can what their interests are. Tradition, intrinsic value, the choice of ends–these things are within the scope of persuasion. But to persuade other people that you know what is useful to them?–even youngish people of eighteen? I fear this may tilt you over the line that separates persuasion from command–the phrase “informed choices” being the wedge.

    I know there’s an aspect of quibbling here. (Forgive me.) But–how shall I put it? If the point of the liberal arts is to help students learn how to choose ends properly, they must initially be free to choose whether to enter a liberal arts curriculum in the first place. If that freedom is to be meaningful, there are very distinct limits to the “persuasions” you can impose upon them, or you have created a Clockwork Orange liberal arts.

    I presume your argument is that the liberal arts can make stronger arguments, especially on the soft underbelly of utility, without crossing that line–handling that delicate issue of interest in a way that eschews the tipping over from traditionalism to authoritarianism. But I think this argument also presumes that your predecessors haven’t been making the best possible arguments in favor of the liberal arts for the last several generations. (Which seems, implicitly, a little condescending to your immediate predecessors.) What if they have been? And what if those arguments simply haven’t persuaded sufficiently on the ground of utility?–or, indeed, any other grounds? Then you cannot go further without crossing that deadly line.

    All of which, doubtless, is the counsel of despair.

    But do consider again the issue of determining one’s own interests, and also the question of whether your predecessors in these lists have already made the best possible arguments. I think your essay (when published) would be strengthened by addressing these topics.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Actually, this really goads me to get finished with the longer essay, because its central argument is that the liberal arts needs redefinition as a curricular project which avoids, to the extent to which it is practical, judging for students what is better for them.

    You can’t do that perfectly because to do so would require infinite resources and infinite attention. But to the extent to which it is possible, the central objective of the liberal arts should be what John Kay calls “obliquity”, the seeking of indirect paths to ultimate ends. Which requires a fastidiousness about what those ends might be, and it requires putting as much heterogeneity (pedagogically, topically, methodologically) on the table as possible.

    But to make that case, you both have to demonstrate (as Kay does) that indirect routes are ultimately a better way to arrive at desired conclusions *and* that direct routes (which I would take to be expressly vocational or otherwise very instrumentally designed curricula in this case) often perversely arrive at ends other than what they sought.

    There’s a kind of Zen dimension to all of this: to have what you want, you have to not try to go at it directly–and not going at it directly means being uncertain about what it is that you want.

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