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New on Blog of The Century
The Century Foundation
by S. Michael Gaddis

Last week, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory suggested that public funding for higher education should support only those academic programs that have clear paths to jobs. This comes on the heels of similar remarks by Florida governor Rick Scott, who wants a tiered tuition plan. The remarks of a number of conservative lawmakers portend either deep cuts in liberal arts programs at public universities, or higher tuition prices for students seeking such degrees.

History suggests that liberal arts degree programs cannot all be a waste of time and money.

Scores of great thinkers and successful individuals have obtained such degrees, including Governor McCrory himself. The last five U.S. presidents all obtained liberal arts degrees—in the fields of economics, foreign relations, history, political science, and sociology. Indeed, the only two presidents since Herbert Hoover (a geologist) to obtain a college degree with a clear employment path after graduation were Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter: graduates of West Point and the Naval Academy, respectively.

One of the most disturbing effects of eliminating funding for higher education in the liberal arts would be the potential increase in the inequality of opportunity. Although students would be free to major in political science, music, and literature at private institutions, not everyone can afford the tuition without extensive scholarship aid. In which case, only those with most means and the most access could be free to pursue their passions.  Public institutions provide an important service to students from a variety of backgrounds and do not put constraints on their pursuits. And this service has paid off in producing amazing individuals. In the past two years alone, over half a dozen Rhodes Scholars have come from public institutions in the United States, with degrees in liberal arts fields.

Critics have been quick to point out a number of other problems with this plan. For one, who should be in charge of deciding what is valuable and what is not? Additionally, fast-growing, high-demand fields often emerge without any one particular degree path feeding into them. Assigning an economic value to degrees is very difficult; predicting the future economic value of degrees is virtually impossible.

Perhaps more importantly, these plans assume that education is solely about the bottom line of a salary or a job. Certainly the significant rise in the number of individuals pursuing higher education over time has been fueled by young people looking to lock in their financial success with a credential. But there is more to a college degree than purely the economic side, and even students realize that. Some of our greatest leaders and scholars, figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann, believed that broad education for the masses was an important part of citizenship democracy, freedom, and happiness. Higher education builds good citizens by promoting critical thinking and teamwork, and providing valuable social experiences.

Unfortunately, these new plans would likely further erode these values. Important research during the past decade has found that higher education institutions are increasingly becoming a means to an end for students, and failing to instill important critical thinking skills. By removing or limiting the option of majoring in liberal arts fields, policymakers would also shrink the size of those programs and the number of students taking them as elective courses. The focus of higher education would narrow, along with the exposure of students to diverse ideas and ways of thinking.

We cannot afford to restrict so severely the options of students pursuing higher education at public institutions. Education policies that increase inequality, reduce the value of education, or limit the focus of education are simply bad policies. An education policy that does all of these things is public education suicide.

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Comment Preferences

  •  So you're in favor of the debt peonage (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rich in PA

    system, where someone borrows 6 figures for a degree in humanities that renders it hard if not impossible to repay that debt.

    Thanks for your interesting perspective.

    •  Oh, this is so... (10+ / 0-)

      Republican. And disingenuous.

      Even if everything we do has to become a means to an economically profitable end, there's a bigger picture to be seen. People do have to study the liberal arts. Otherwise we get students in the sciences who can not write a word or put together a narrative, and WE have to teach them their basic writing, analysis, and critical thinking skills that they should be getting from their humanities instructors. My specialized science training is wasted teaching undergrads to write a complete sentence when they should be learning that from an English department. (Or from a decent K-12 education). Take humanities out of the equation and it will drag down the "job training programs" we're supposed to be running in other parts of the university.

      Also, a system without humanities = a system without humanity. That's what the Republicans want -- a system of rote-trained cogs who just perform their tasks and don't think.

      McCrory is an idiot. I hope he is not allowed to completely destroy North Carolina's university system.

      Do you not see that it is the grossest idolatry to speak of the market as though it were the rival of God?

      by kismet on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 10:12:26 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  You summed up my feelings precisely. (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        profewalt, lazybum, RiveroftheWest, anana

        I was an English major with a master's degree in Library Science and another in Communications.  I  have found most computer manuals impossible to read because IT types CANNOT WRITE CLEARLY. These guys need people like me to put their information into simple English that non-IT types can comprehend.  Which is why there are  books like Word For Dummies.

        I've also taught college-level writing courses.  Most of my students were tech types, AF enlisted.  Most of them couldn't write a paper before I god of them.  By the time they got through my two classes, they could write a clear, organized position paper, with correct research and footnotes--and every semester I'd ahve two or three from the previous class come back and tell me they'd gotten an A in a class because their paper got an A.  SO we liberal arts types are necessary.

        Oh, and for johnny wurster--I also took three semesters of Legal Research and Writing for a paralegal degree i've never been able to use. Got straight As in all three.  And the reason I got straight As was because I ALREADY knew how to write and do research.

        The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake.

        by irishwitch on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 01:05:30 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  No. (0+ / 0-)
        People do have to study the liberal arts. Otherwise we get students in the sciences who can not write a word or put together a narrative, and WE have to teach them their basic writing, analysis, and critical thinking skills that they should be getting from their humanities instructors.
        People are not supposed to learn basic writing, analysis, and critical thinking skills from humanities professors.  If they lack basic scholastic aptitude when applying to college, they are supposed to be denied admission.

        While I agree that students should take liberal arts courses, I don't think they serve this role.  Without liberal arts courses, the kids who got a decent K-12 education can still write perfectly well; those students who are deficient in basic writing will continue to be deficient even if you send them off to take English classes geared towards college students---they'll just be deficient with an extra D on their transcript.

        Indeed, there is research that supports this position:  college students who were found deficient in critical thinking and reading comprehension were observed to remain deficient after a year of college.  College is just the wrong place to be if you need a course to learn how to write a sentence.

        Taking jokes seriously is the exact mirror activity of laughing if someone says they have cancer. --jbou

        by Caj on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 11:59:47 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Music to Law (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      irishwitch, profewalt

      My son earned a performance degree in classical guitar and eventually went to law school and is a practicing lawyer.

      His life and probably his job performance are enhanced by the fact he is not so one-dimensional.  He was better off as a barely in debt musician than a very in debt lawyer - at least so far but is only a couple years into his practice.

      geo in Wisc.

    •  no (0+ / 0-)

      what we're "in favor of" is a culture that recognizes the importance of all arts and sciences education, and subsidizes it the way that most civilized (and, btw, successful) countries do.

  •  The authors of such stupid proposals know very (12+ / 0-)

    little about where gradudates of the liberal arts end up working. I am sure that most of those in congress come from a liberal arts background. When I was dean of a college of liberal arts, we had more alums working at Microsoft than the college of science which  included computer science.

    "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats ..." - Kenneth Grahame -

    by RonK on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 09:39:29 AM PST

    •  I Worked Support Staff in Lib Arts Placement (8+ / 0-)

      and that was what I saw back in the 80's. At least back then, while the biz and engineering computer grads started out higher paid, by around 15 years out the liberal arts computer grads passed them and never looked back.

      Authors of these proposals know damned well what the facts are. The point is to terminate education itself. The right has been framing education as "training" for 40 years.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 09:56:29 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thus Universities become simply expensive (5+ / 0-)

    vo-tech schools cranking out whatever discipline and skills the corporate masters deem useful at the moment.

    No reason why we shouldn't aggressively pursue becoming the biggest and best Philistine nation evah! and leave languages, art, music, philosophy, literature, history, theater, and all those other effete intellectual studies that lead to nothing securitizable to other, less forward thinking countries.

    “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” FDR

    by Phoebe Loosinhouse on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 09:45:16 AM PST

    •  OK, but the rejoinder to that might well be... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Gooserock

      ...that only a small percentage of graduates in those areas you mention are actually working in those areas! Most are working in other things, and at least initially they're at a salary deficit relative to people whose degrees were more closely related to those sectors.  I'm not sure in what sense that reality is slowing our slide into philistinism.  

      You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

      by Rich in PA on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 09:53:32 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  They Pass the Purpose-Trained Grads Around 10-15 (4+ / 0-)

        years out and earn more the rest of their careers. Well that was the data back in the 80's when I worked at lib arts placement office.

        We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

        by Gooserock on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 09:57:44 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  That's exactly the data we need. (0+ / 0-)

          It goes with what I suggested above, that liberal arts teaches some portable analytical skills that societies and organizations need. It could be that structural changes in the economy and/or the obtuseness of management/ownership have obliterated this premium, though.

          You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

          by Rich in PA on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 10:18:31 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Or, as Harvard students say to MIT students (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          profewalt

          when the MIT students brag about how much higher their SAT score was, how much smarter they are, how much harder MIT is.

          The Harvard students usually say "yes, I agree, I'll be sure to hire you to work for me."

          Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear. ~William E. Gladstone, 1866

          by absdoggy on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 11:18:19 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Any recent data? (0+ / 0-)

          In the firms I've worked with these days, they don't hire liberal arts majors to be managers, they promote their people with technical degrees.

          Whereas it used to be your bankers and finance guys would be liberal arts majors, today they generally have undergrads in business.

          Employers have gotten used to instruction being tailored to the job you expect to get.

      •  Much of commerce involves communication (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        profewalt, RiveroftheWest

        and writing skills and reading and interpretive skills. Languages and their study are what connects the world and why we're so hopelessly insular already since we're mostly monolingual. A sense of history is always nice in order to give context and perspective because nothing in the world occurs as a distinct event untied to other events that have preceded it.

        In my opinion, we have had enough dumbing down in this nation in our headlong pursuit towards Idiocracy;  tossing out as valueless much of the world's collective and cumulative knowlege because it is not immediately redeemable for a McJob strikes me as a mistake.

        But this is good news for Celtic Monastery futures.

        “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” FDR

        by Phoebe Loosinhouse on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 10:22:30 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Doesn't matter if they are "working" in that area (5+ / 0-)

        What matters is that they are LIVING a liberal arts education.  If education is reduced to mere job training, where does the next Jefferson come from? The next Sergeant Shriver, Kennedy, etc.?

        When you say liberal arts - does that include students in Pre-Law programs that major in English, history, etc.?

        How about liberal arts majors that go on to MBA programs?

        Or people like me who get a B.A. in Math and go on to graduate programs in economics, accounting, applied sciences, etc.

        If we reduce higher education to nothing more than a dollars equation to a future job, then it loses all of its meaning.

        Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear. ~William E. Gladstone, 1866

        by absdoggy on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 11:16:45 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  The Gov makes a legitimate observation... (0+ / 0-)

    ...that deserves a legitimate response.  There is a societal consensus that government should first attend to the more utilitarian concerns of its people, which raises a question about the less-utilitarian (liberal arts) variant of something widely regarded as necessary (a college degree).  The compelling case to be made for a public option for liberal arts college education isn't that our last X presidents got one (that speaks more to the value of such an education in creating social closure, as Weber called it; it's an ambiguously democratic message at best), or that poorer students should have every choice of major that wealthier ones have (especially if the Gov believes that the wealthy are wasting their money); rather, it's that a liberal arts education is both inherently conservative (in the good sense that most people on the political spectrum embrace, i.e. not sqaundering our collective accomplishments as a species, country, whatever) and functionally necessary.  In a world of hyper-specialization, some people need to take a willfully broader view that privileges generic qualities of critical reasoning and expression or else we'll have a world where nobody can understand what anyone else is doing.  

    You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

    by Rich in PA on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 09:50:24 AM PST

    •  Alright, that's a reasonable view (0+ / 0-)

      ...but the government has a limited amount of funds.  Shouldn't they consider allocating them in the manner which best increases their tax base?

      (Also, realistically, people will still go into liberal arts, just in reduced numbers.)

  •  The bigger picture's getting lost (7+ / 0-)

    apparently. I find it interesting that two of the greatest physicists of the 20th century (and I only choose them because physics is as about as sciency as one can get), Planck and Einstein, both enjoyed (and I use the word consciously) a classical, liberal education (Latin as first foreign language, followed by both Greek and Hebrew; mathematics through calculus, both flavors; and they both played musical instruments competently). Apparently, somewhere in all that fuzzy stuff, they learned to think, both concretely and abstractly.

    When I worked in Silicon Valley, the head of software development at a large anti-virus software company had a master's in history from Stanford ... because everyone else in the department only had bachelor's degrees in history from Stanford (it was a running joke). More seriously, however, the head of software development at a large computer graphics outfit (which did work for Hollywood) was always on the lookout for foreign-language majors (because they could shift to new languages faster) and music majors (because when they realized that what they were doing would not produce the desired results, they had no compunction about throwing it away and starting from scratch ... get an engineer to do that).

    Restricting access (and that's precisely what tuition differentials amount to) to a broader-based education is simply self-destructive. Business gets its drones and the rest of us get the shaft.

  •  One current trend in State supported higher (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    profewalt

    education is just the opposite of this proposal. For example, the Unversity of Washington charges higher tuition rates for engineering students because it costs more to train/educate them with expensive labs etc.

    "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats ..." - Kenneth Grahame -

    by RonK on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 10:11:05 AM PST

  •  Thank you for this diary. I had no idea. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xajaxsingerx

    This is infuriating and goes against the very core of what universities and colleges are pursuing in nature, and whom they deliver to the world.

    Striving for a small government indeed, eh, GOP? This is yet another manipulative, invasive maneuver resembling actions taken in dictatorships - turning against and controlling the intelligentsia and the academic world is one of those tools to keep the population in check.

  •  The Social Sciences are not liberal arts (0+ / 0-)

    To the author.
    Social and Behavioral Sciences (Economics, Political Science, Psychology, etc) are not liberal arts. Do not group them in for your convenience. Every complex systems analyst I know would

    They are largely quantitative disciplines right now. In fact they are known now as complex systems analysis.

    One of the things that bothers many people in these disciplines is when they are grouped with liberal arts. Last time I checked liberal arts (History, English, Philosophy, Languages, etc) did not require quantitative reasoning, scientific peer review, and structuring studies and experiments. Last I checked English majors are not concerned with the details of mathematical probabilities and statistics, or complex algebra.

    So please, next time you write this, please exclude those in disciplines which are quantitative in nature. Since there are pretty clear professional paths in each one, often involving the quantitative reasoning skills involved directly with the education.

    This is not to defeat your point, but to highlight the fact that a science, even a soft science, is not a liberal art.

    •  Why the nasty comment about liberal arts? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lazybum

      Here's some facts for you.

      College of William & Mary:

      "Every undergraduate student at William and Mary explores our liberal arts curriculum and masters the creative, reasoning, and analytical processes needed to engage their future on their own terms."

      Oh look, the degrees they award are B.A. and M.A. in Sociology and Psychology.

      Same at College of the Holy Cross - degrees in economics, psychology and sociology are all Bachelor of Arts.

      Why? Because these and many other higher education institutions are liberal arts institutions, and approach education accordingly, rather than pigeon-holing everyone into this or that category.

      I could just as easily say -

      Last time I checked, sociology, psychology and economics majors were just flunkies who weren't smart enough to get into the Mathematics (me) or Engineering disciplines. The grade school algebra, probability and statistics that they do pale in comparison to the development of mathematics such as chaos theory and abstract algebra.

      Last time I checked, Sociologists were still hailing the Stanford prison experiment as some great and profound knowledge - duh, put two groups of people in a closed environment and give one group power over the other, and they are likely to abuse it. Gee, who would have thought? Whole lotta scientific discipline required there.

      Last time I checked, Lyndon Larouche was writing and publishing books on sociology, psychoanalysis and economics - so much for reasoning and peer review.

      We all have our own strengths and talents and our disciplines contribute in different but equal measure to society. Let's appreciate education for all that it is, and all disciplines for the contributions they make.

      Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear. ~William E. Gladstone, 1866

      by absdoggy on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 12:01:45 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I think you're missing the bigger point (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lazybum, Expat Okie, sfinx

      which is that proposals such as these don't parse things the same way you do.  These proposals parse things through the simple metrics of job availability and anticipated need.  Under these metrics, economics, psychology, music, sociology, history, and anthropology are all equally devalued, regardless of whether or not they use quantitative analysis.

      I have been a high school teacher for 15 years and am still in contact with most of my students on FaceBook.  It appears from their experiences that the English and history majors weathered the recession much more easily than those who had opted for technical training degrees and for the most part fared better than those who opted for the hard sciences.

      My father in law is one of the early silicon valley guys and his take on higher education is that its idiotic to major in computer science because the training you get will be useless within a decade.  He argues that the best return on investment is to hire somebody who has majored in something that requires thought (like philosophy, economics, or history) or communication (like English, Creative Writing, or Foreign Language) because those people will be able to pick up new ideas and new methods quickly and be able to get their ideas across.

      Of course, a biology or physics major is always a good idea, too.

      Credulant (adj): Something that is not fully credible because it is unsourced but it sounds true so it is accepted without argument.

      by xajaxsingerx on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 12:34:08 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  The academic disciplines that you cite have been (0+ / 0-)

      traditionally among the liberal arts as noted by Visceral below. There were seven such disciplines: rhetoric, logic, grammar, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and music.

       However, the specific ones you mention are now classified as the Humanities.

      "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats ..." - Kenneth Grahame -

      by RonK on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 03:58:34 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  liberal arts descended from aristocratic education (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    profewalt

    It has its origins in the days when skills beyond dancing and fencing were considered beneath the dignity of an aristocrat, and formal education focused on molding the character of future rulers.  They thought the ideal written sources for this were the Bible, the ancient Greek precursors of the likes of Catholic scholasticism as well as Nietzsche and Leo Strauss, and the musings and filibusters of ancient Roman politicians and pundits.

    Even into the 19th Century, the attitude was still held that the trades, the sciences, and the professions were the domain of commoners, and that those destined for the ruling class needed an education in philosophy and rhetoric meant to be used to master people.  Given the rise of the business class, we now also have the MBA: another education for glorified managers - for talkers rather than doers.

    Something's wrong when the bad guys are the utopian ones.

    by Visceral on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 12:02:48 PM PST

  •  Are we damning the liberal arts with faint praise? (0+ / 0-)

    If someone calls for "academic programs that have clear paths to jobs," should we really take that as an attack on the liberal arts?

    To conflate the two concepts is to disparage the liberal arts, to assume that they don't confer a clear path to a job.  Liberal arts graduates are quite employable, thank you.

    Also, the diary seems to conflate the liberal arts with the humanities.  They are different:  if you take nothing but history courses, you get an education in the humanities, not in the liberal arts, which by definition require a broad background in many subjects.

    Taking jokes seriously is the exact mirror activity of laughing if someone says they have cancer. --jbou

    by Caj on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 12:05:38 PM PST

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