Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Future of Liberal Arts

My wife and I have seven college degrees between us. We share more layoffs than that. All those degrees, minus the dubious M.B.A. I earned a few years back, are in Liberal Arts fields. This may also help to explain those layoffs, although I suppose that sheer workplace incompetence can never be ruled out entirely. All I know is this: I’m sure they exist, but I’ve never yet met a laid-off engineer or accountant. Laid off English majors? Umm, yeah, I’ve met my share.

There was a time, as recently as the mid-1970s, when I was earning Liberal Arts degree #1 in Creative Writing, when the conventional wisdom held that the mere possession of a college degree opened up shining vistas of middle-class respectability and privilege. You might not get rich, but you could buy a tract home in the burbs and vacation at Myrtle Beach. Now a college degree – at least a Liberal Arts college degree – will get you a barista job at Starbucks. The cost of education has risen astronomically, and the value of that education, at least in terms of potential dollars and cents, is more dubious than ever. Question: how many lattes do you have to serve to pay off a $100,000 student loan? Answer: It’s a trick question. You’ll never pay off a $100,000 student loan making $7.00 per hour. A collection agency will repossess your iPhone, laptop, and guitar. You’ll end up living in your parents’ basement. I assure you that this is a prospect that frightens children and parents alike.

Both my daughters are currently in school, piling up enormous debt. My oldest daughter is working on Liberal Arts degree #2, and my youngest daughter is about to finish up Liberal Arts degree #1. It’s unfortunate, but genetics is working against them. They are indisputably the products of Liberal Arts parents. They can’t help themselves. They could no more major in the sciences or business than Rush Limbaugh could serve as the executive director of the ACLU.

The conventional wisdom these days would tell them that it’s not worth it, and that the ROI is absurdly low, if not non-existent. Me? I’ll encourage them to be themselves, to learn as much as they can, and to let the chips (which most assuredly cannot be cashed in) fall where they may.

The conventional wisdom also holds that the liberal arts teach people how to think. Or, as they told me long ago, a liberal arts education prepares you for everything and nothing. You’ll have to forge your own path, often with machete in hand, but you’ll be a well-rounded individual who is adept at integrating disparate fields of knowledge and evaluating different and sometimes contradictory information.

It seems to me that “different and sometimes contradictory” is very much in the ascendancy in our culture. As a nation, Americans are bombarded with information, much of it baffling and utterly skewed. On Halloween weekend, one news network reported that approximately 2,000 people showed up for a political rally in Washington, D.C. Another news network reported that a quarter of a million people showed up for the same rally. I am admittedly not a math/science person, but this seems to stretch the boundaries of “different and sometimes contradictory” to new levels. And even I remember how to count.

In the face of this kind of world, it behooves us all, engineers and baristas alike, to remember some bottom-line facts that don’t show up on income statements. An ex-president once said, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.” Here’s the truth: it’s best if you’re not one of those people, regardless of your job prospects. I would like to think that a good liberal arts education can offer some needed perspective in the crazy world in which we live. I’m also hoping my kids remember how to count.


Brother-in-law Bill said...

When each of my two daughters went off to college, I, their father who graduated with a degree in business administration with a concentration in accounting and finance, made sure they understood that an undergraduate degree in art would limit their employment prospects, but as long as they understood that, I would see to it that they were able to spend a reasonable amount of time to receive that degree. One daughter, with almost no help from me, proceeded to earn her doctorate in art history, which qualifies her for a shrinking number of positions requiring such a degree. The other daughter took enough art education classes to qualify as a K-12 art teacher and has been reasonably successful at finding suitable positions.

Although I have no doubt that economics played no role in their choices, one married an engineer, while the other married a business administration major with a concentration in marketing. This has helped my sleep a great deal. Maybe your delightful daughters will get "bailed out" as well, and proceed to live the good life while enjoying the fruits of their liberal arts educations.

lbotta said...

Andy, this is why I continue to read your blog. You speak from the heart and consequently the heart of God. I was just thinking along similar lines on the way in to work this morning. I am an artist by heart and an engineer by trade. I think there is something wrong with this picture. I am endeavoring this year how to be truer to myself and allow God to work. I think that is how I was built.



Buckley Wheatish said...

Andy, this article really hits home. I'll email you our "continuing" story regarding this matter. Thank you for continuing to write here. What you have to say is significant.

MBG said...

In the early 80's I studied and trained to work in a field where there is, I was told, "always a need." Now, in this economic and education environment, teachers are getting laid off -- some with many years of seniority (in our local public schools, some teachers with 6 or more years in the same school district were laid off.)

What I'm doing now would possibly benefit from a Liberal Arts degree. Instead I have had to teach myself how to think and how to write about those thoughts.

Don't get me wrong. I sympathize with your situation. Our son is in his junior year at a small Liberal Arts college. We often find ourselves holding our breath and biting our tongues when he talks about his coursework. It sounds "fun," but we worry about the practicality. Only time will tell if he made the right choices or not.


nancy (aka moneycoach) said...

I'm a history major and as I've progressed in my career, increasingly see how it's served me well.
You kids might want to translate some of the umbrella "teaches me how to think" into some core competencies valued by employers, and then don't shrink back from proclaiming them.

Here are examples:
1. How valuable is it to your company that I can quickly read a lot of information and find the nugget that will affect the bottom line?
2. How valuable is it to your company that I can persuade others (because I have strong verbal skills)?
3. How valuable is it to your company that I can communicate effectively and sensitively with people from other cultures (thanks to my art history degree)?
4. How valuable is it that I can write in such a way that it will impress your customers / your CEO / your business partners?
5. How valuable is that I am in touch with both global trends and micro-trends (because I'm observant and love to read)?


Liberal Arts - FTW!