The Liberal Arts: Why Am I Here Again?

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The cost of a college education has recently hit an all-time high. However, despite the increase, with unemployment among liberal arts majors at 9 percent, many graduates are finding it incredibly difficult to find work in their field, and plenty struggle to find work at all. With the rising cost and decreasing value of a liberal arts education, many are starting to wonder why students are willing to incur the crippling cost of college. As a recent Minnesota Daily article observed:

For most students who are thrown out to an unforgiving “real world” with liberal arts degrees, the survival of the fittest is not just a theory. Unlike technical majors such as engineering, health care and information technology, most liberal arts students are not sure where they will end up.

However we think about a liberal arts education, the economic realities and job market beyond the classroom demand an urgent redesign of the humanities so there is a balance between intellectual and economic gain. Doing so would prepare generations of students for a dynamic future job market.

While the author illustrates the mounting problem of a liberal arts education poignantly, he has failed to fully diagnose the cause of the decline in value of a liberal arts education. Universities may need to restructure their curriculum, but what about the most important individual in a student’s life, the student? The student selects his degree program, participates in the coursework, and is ultimately responsible for what he makes of the education he chooses to receive. As we previously argued, many students fail to make the most of their education because they fail to take a firsthand, independent attitude toward the value of their time in school:

What many students confront when college ends is the jarring realization that they’re on their own, and that being proficient on one’s own, i.e. being independent in thought and action, is a far more basic requirement of success than possession of a degree. But independent thought and motivation is undermined at every turn in the college trajectory. Children aren’t offered higher education as something they should independently choose to value and pursue: they are confronted instead with a series of clichés lacking critical assessment of pros and cons. High school students are coached to approach learning not because the courses are personally interesting and significant, but because those courses have currency with anonymous college admissions officers. College students often find little required of them in terms of effort and thought: the inflation of grades and reduction in assigned reading and writing is well-documented. And naturally, graduates find themselves unsure of what they’re supposed to do with the title conferred upon them at the end—and hope that society will take care of the opportunity for them.

Many students are failing to find opportunities after graduation because they have assumed all along that simply by following their academic career to the next step, an economically stable future will be waiting for them. This trend is especially common within the humanities.

Many courses in the humanities are ready-made for students who aren’t interested in the coursework, who simply want to perform the minimum necessary to get the degree that others think they should get. Unlike degree programs in more technical fields, the humanities require less mandatory participation and feature less rigorous forms of evaluation.  Lectures once based on dialogue between instructor and student have become monologues heard by droves of students crooning, “C’s get degrees.”

These students have been encouraged by their mentors to take and maintain this attitude. The pervasive attitude in our country has become, “everyone should go to college.” Yet, nobody stops to ask why. The guidance counselors and teachers urging students to go to college without ever communicating a reason beyond a vague explanation of its importance to one’s future are also at fault.

Rather than merely casting blame upon universities for poorly structured humanities programs, we ought to recognize that the full cause of the problem is also due to students aimlessly doing as they have been told. The humanities are not in trouble because of an overall shift in the value of the skills they are able to impart to willing minds, but because many students studying the humanities have failed to develop those skills. More importantly, we as a society need to understand that the value of a college education is not in the piece of paper granted at the end. It is in the self-driven student that used his time in school to learn and grow, rather than meander along the path assigned to him by others.

Posted by on September 27, 2012. Filed under Culture, Fall 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
  • RuSaavy

    The world would be a less interesting, far more black and white place, if we were compelled to abandon the liberal arts for more technical degrees. Without question, the value of such a degree should be weighed early on against the dynamics of the employment marketplace, one’s life ambitions, and the ability derive the neccesary income. Parents, teachers, mentors should indeed challenge – all the way through the college years – the steps and outcomes ahead.

    • Woland

      I made the realization early on in my education that any studying of the liberal arts I wanted to do (a lot) did not warrant the need to get a “degree” in that subject. Non-technical subjects can very often be studied independently with no adverse effects… in fact, I would argue it is more beneficial to study many of these “soft-subjects” without the aid of a professor simply because it forces one to make up his/her own mind about it and not just accept the professor’s take on it. From my own experience, a lot of students don’t get into science and engineering because they don’t feel capable, not because they don’t want to. A student should choose his or her major based on what they want to be good at, not what they are good at or passionate about, then utilize “deliberate practice” to obtain that goal. I disagree that the world would be less interesting if people moved to technical degrees. Just because someone chooses to get a technical degree does not mean they are abandoning the liberal arts. Perhaps they, like me, decided they could study those subjects independently while using college to become technically skilled.

  • MarcusAurelli

    As students, we look at our education as something to be consumed. What can I get from this four years? The answer probably includes a number of activities which are NOT aimed to make us producers. So when we enter the workplace, that all changes, right? Wrong! The sharing of knowledge at the workplace is limited and controlled. Numerous special programs and meaningless training requirements eat up productivity. The work life balance is often cited as being more important than salary. Why? Because we are not looking to produce, we are looking to be taken care of. If anything, we should probably encourage a program that teaches us independence and the proper form of inquiry, logic, so that we become a happier, more rational society.

  • Scaramouche

    I must agree. I have earned one technical diploma and am now completing an engineering degree. Why? Because there is no such thing as ‘apprenticing’ anymore so I must go somewhere to be credited with permission to ply a technical trade.

    Does this mean that somehow I lose out on the liberal arts? Non-sense. I spend enormous time studying the literature and music I love, and just purchased paintings from Cordair Fine Art…..because I can afford it as a student in a technical field.

    Also, my explorations are not sullied by the influence of teachers, tests and ‘group discussions’ that are emotionally exhausting as one is forced to listen to nihilist and egalitarians defecate on what you think is beautiful, and praise the depraved.

    School is simply a certification. The aggressive self learner, with the aid of an Internet connection and a credit card can explore the entire world of the arts.

  • Eileen

    As a now retired career coach, I understand the frustrations of the newly graduated college student approaching the job market. Those same frustrations can persist throughout a career if the individual has not made choices that are congruent with their interests, abilities, and aspirations. A liberal arts education produces a well-rounded graduate who has hopefully learned to think as the author of this article suggests. However, unless they have had meaningful work experience or an internship, they will not be highly marketable and sought after in the job market. What are the questions and solutions to this dilemma? The questions are pretty straightforward. What do I want to bring to the table and how do I best become prepared? The solutions should be a balance of responsibility between the student, the curriculum, and school programs designed to help the student through the assessment, goal setting and preparation process. I enjoyed Connor’s well written and thought provoking article.

  • GetIronic

    And why do they “fail to take a firsthand, independent attitude toward the value of their time in school”? There’s still the question to answer.

    It’s half because the awful public education they received has crippled their minds, and half because of government subsidies of student loans. The subsidies create loans which encourage those on the fence about school, or without enough motivation to enter into post-secondary courses. Without them, tuition would fall and only the most motivated students would attend, stopping the oversupply of “degrees” in general.