Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, wants to pour money into college programs he regards as leading to jobs and economic growth (math and science), and he wants to cut funding for college programs that he regards as not doing so. He recently told an interviewer: "Is it a vital interest for the state to have more anthropologists? I don't think so."
Well, ouch. As an anthropologist, I am dismayed to see such a stark dismissal of my social value. But I take solace in the fact that Governor Scott's analysis of the relationship of the economic value of different college majors is stupid. My undergraduate major was mathematics, and on graduation I immediately found a job: working as a minimum wage clerk in a college bookstore. The fact is, a degree in math or physics is no more of a guarantee of a good job than a degree in anthropology or English literature. Furthermore, college isn't just about qualifying people for jobs, it's about educating people for life and citizenship as well as work.
But although Governor Scott's analysis is dumb, I have to admit that he is attempting to address a real and important problem. Namely, it is time for an honest discussion about the value of the liberal arts curriculum that is enshrined at so many of the nation's colleges and universities.
Defenders of the liberal arts point out that a broad education which exposes students to philosophy and art as well as math and sciences produces men and women who are thoughtful citizens-which is sort of important in a democracy-at the same time as it trains graduates in the mental flexibility that is increasingly important in the marketplace. And indeed, often this happens.
But as a person who has taught college students at excellent universities for about three decades now, I am qualified to say that graduates often fall short of these ideals. The plain honest fact is that lots of college students have absolutely no interest in discussing Plato's allegory of the cave or reflecting on the causes of the Civil War. It is an enormous waste of social resources to spend tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars per student to place these young people in liberal arts classes and try to get them to be reflective. This is demonstrated by the fact that huge proportions of college graduates end up being deficient in basic skills such as reading interpretation and writing.
Please don't get me wrong here. Lots of students who encounter a strong liberal arts curriculum are enormously enriched by the experience. What I'm questioning is the assumption that this is true of everyone.
And while I'm questioning assumptions, I'd also like to take on the notion that the former category of people are somehow superior to the latter. Take Joe, an imaginary guy. Joe doesn't want to spend hours of his life in rigorous study so that he can quote Emerson and question the status quo. Joe is fine with the status quo. He wants to be a firefighter. Eventually Joe succeeds in his goal. He has a family and goes to church. He's a great dad and an avid amateur fiddler. Is Joe somehow less valuable to society than a chemical engineer who works for a fast food company or a college professor who reflects on politics and writes articles for a small group of colleagues?
President Obama has argued that the United States needs to send a higher proportion of the population to college. That only makes sense if colleges get considerably more effective about tailoring their programs to what people need. Many of the students entering college today are not remotely prepared for a liberal arts curriculum, what they need is basic training in the skills (such as reading and writing) that they were supposed to learn in secondary school. Many others need training in specific job-related skills.
Let those who want a liberal arts education pursue it-our society benefits from a healthy dose of adults who are ready to engage and expand our great tradition of literature and art and science. But let's stop pretending that doing so is the only way to be educated or to prepare to make a social contribution. Denying funding to liberal arts disciplines won't fix anything. What is appropriate is careful thought about how to provide a range of options in higher education that will help many different sorts of people reach their life goals.
To learn more, please visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo by Will Hale.