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There are some stories that appear and reappear in the media during every economic downturn. Commentators note breathlessly that students are moving away from majors in the traditional arts and sciences, and particularly away from those in the humanities—fields like literature, philosophy, history and art. Students who major in liberal-arts disciplines are having a harder time finding jobs than their more professionally oriented peers in business and engineering, and they are making less if and when they do find employment.
Worse, however, policymakers are now getting into the act, with several governors making proposals to charge humanities majors more for their degrees, or to defund programs in the traditional arts and sciences altogether.
These stories are both simplistic and one-sided. And policy proposals derived from them are both unjustified and illogical. Perhaps most important, both the stories and the proposed policies miss the larger point of going to college and how higher education serves a democratic society.
First, these stories ignore very compelling data about what employers themselves say they want from college and university graduates. Recent studies commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, for instance, suggest that employers are more interested in college graduates’ acquisition of top-notch communication, critical thinking and ethical reasoning skills than in the particular choice of major or in-depth knowledge in any specific field. Employers understand that knowledge today has a very short shelf-life—and that technical skills, too, can quickly become obsolete. What employers really want are liberally educated individuals who can thrive in a constantly changing environment.
Moreover, the data on employment and earnings are not as bleak as commonly supposed. It’s true that the initial unemployment rate is somewhat higher among arts and sciences graduates (around 10 percent) than it is among engineers and business majors (around 7.5 percent). It is not clear, however, that these gaps persist over the long run. Often, arts and sciences majors either take more time to find the jobs they want or get further education on the way to a job. Taking the longer view is essential for all students, but particularly important for those in the liberal arts.
Certainly, some jobs pay more than others. But this fact alone does not justify a blanket condemnation of whole areas of study, including several through which students, over time, are still able to make a place for themselves in the job market. In fact, a recent study notes that at mid-career, philosophy majors earn slightly more than business majors.
Still, comparing majors by initial employment and suggesting formal policies based on job placement and future earnings is seriously misguided. Consider a recent, very good student of mine. He is a history major and had spent a semester studying in Washington, D.C. When I asked whether he saw himself coming back to the nation’s capital to build a career, he said “no.” His experience had actually made him want to go back to his hometown and teach high-school social studies and coach, buy a home, settle down and start a family.
In what universe does it make sense to tell this young man that he should pay more for his degree because the job he seeks doesn’t have huge economic rewards? Do we really want to punish students for pursuing careers of great value to our society generally, but that are not rewarded as handsomely as others?
The primary function of higher education is not to produce a precise number of graduates in specific fields. Colleges and universities can and should prepare students to take their places in the economy, including through specific technical and professional studies. But higher education also has a wider mission to help students, as Andrew Delbanco puts it in his recent book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, “sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.”
That is, while colleges and universities should contribute to students’ economic potential, they also should be contributing to their potential for personal development and responsible citizenship. Study in the traditional arts and sciences isn’t only good preparation for work, as employers have pointed out—it also provides the broader knowledge and skills that serve all students well in their communities and throughout their lives.
My history student understands and exemplifies this broader view of the purpose of higher education. One only wishes that more of our policymakers and opinion leaders did so as well. We really can’t afford to “discount” philosophy, either in value or in price. We need—economically, politically, socially—the kind of higher education that prepares students for work, life and responsible citizenship.
David Paris is Vice President for Integrative Liberal Learning and the Global Commons at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
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