Liberal arts or manual arts? Truth-seeking or job-seeking? It’s a debate about the purpose of college that never seems to end. And it’s one, as Tom Dawson pointed out in his recent post, that too often plays out misleadingly, as if the choice to opt for liberal arts inevitably consigns anthropology majors to the margins of the labor force.
Indeed, as Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce noted in a sensible Wall Street Journal piece last week, there’s a middle ground in this discussion. It’s quite true, he says, that students who major in fields such as science and engineering have higher employment rates and salaries immediately after graduation, compared to humanities majors. On the other hand, the benefits of liberal arts degrees “often aren’t fully realized until later in life.” Many humanities and liberal arts students (43 percent) get graduate degrees that raise their lifetime earnings by 27 percent. And those who reach the managerial ranks earn median salaries of $103,000—still less than the STEM crowd, but narrowing the earnings divide by almost half.
So we know that college-major choice has a significant impact on immediate post-graduation salaries (and we’ll know even more as more states join Florida, Washington, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia in publishing major-by-major salary figures for all their universities). We also know, per Dawson and Carnevale, that liberal arts grads face brighter economic prospects over time than their initial prospects might suggest. Transparency about outcomes—which is coming, slowly but surely—would seem to be just what students need to make informed choices about what and where to study.
But what about students’ souls? This is where the purpose-of-college debate becomes thorniest, I believe, even for liberal arts sympathizers like myself. Consider an eminent representative of the purist camp, Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco. In his passionate defense of the liberal arts, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, he dismisses “narrow training in vocational subjects such as accounting or information technology” in favor of giving students “the precious chance to think and reflect before life engulfs them.”
It’s hard to be against reflection. All the more so if, as Delbanco advocates, universities take responsibility for giving students much more guidance than they receive now about “what’s worth thinking about.” However, it’s unclear why practicality should always take a backseat to the life of the mind. When I reviewed Delbanco’s book recently, I gave him credit for recognizing that a large and growing number of college students are working adults with kids and career-minded commuter students. But there doesn’t seem to be much place in his postsecondary universe for their legitimate workplace aspirations. Although “it is indeed patronizing to assume that nontraditional students can’t benefit from liberal arts education,” I wrote, “they may not want it. Most have very practical goals when they take on college classes along with their other demanding real-world commitments.”
If slavishly following marketplace imperatives when thinking about educational choices is a mistake, so is ignoring students’ practical desires. Fortunately, we don’t always face stark choices: Engineers can take literature classes, and history majors can study finance. But when firmer decisions must be made, it’s important to remember that different students want and need different things. So long as they’re well-informed—about both the educational and career consequences of their choices—that’s nothing to agonize about.
Image Credit: Gary Varvel