Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Soapbox: Why the Liberal Arts Matter

Normally, I try to avoid discussing education on this blog for a couple of reasons: 1. I work in education, and I'm always slightly paranoid that some troll might come along and decide I've said something unsavory. 2. Books are usually more fun to blog about than education. However, I heard something today that was extremely concerning. In Florida, there is some serious discussion taking place about defunding liberal arts departments in public colleges. This is very important and concerning. Even if you aren't in college or hate the liberal arts, trust me on this one, or don't, but here are a few things to think about if you start nodding in agreement about defunding those silly English departments and Philosophy departments.

  1. The STEM fields currently show the highest rate of return for those who complete their degrees. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.) Supposedly, the jobs in these fields are the most difficult to outsource and the most in demand. It also happens that training for these fields is expensive. Labs need to be maintained with current equipment. Software must be purchased. Faculty can be hard to come by and often command higher salaries than those in the humanities. After all, why work for $40,000 a year for 9 months when you can work at Google for $300,000? So, obviously the STEM departments are more important and should be more generously funded than the departments in the humanities, right? Actually, I don't disagree with all of this. When I advise students and find one who is talented in math or science, I strongly encourage him or her to consider a major in a STEM field. I even believe in the need to maintain plenty of labs in good condition and hire competent faculty. However, if a student is not interested in the STEM fields, that student is not going to complete a major in one or be successful in the marketplace because it's too much work and too competitive for someone who isn't passionate about it. People in STEM fields often work in environments with co-workers who have gotten by on their quantitative skills alone and lack strong communication and leadership skills. Consequently, working conditions are often harsh, and in many cases, employees walk away from well compensated positions as soon as they can because it's just too miserable. That does not help our economy or prevent brain drain. It just creates another revolving door and a lot of misery.
  2. The United States is not ready for every student to be expected to perform at the college level in math or science right out of high school. Most of our high school seniors can't even get past the minimum amount of math required in the high school curriculum and it's not unusual for them to bomb the proficiency tests. Yes, the testing is a waste of time, and I have other issues with that. However, I think we can all agree that math education in the United States currently leaves a lot to be desired. Even if it were a great idea, you can't make a bunch of STEM majors in college out of high school graduates who can't add beyond the number of fingers and toes on their bodies.
  3. Just because funding can be taken away from public institutions does not mean that nobody will have the means to access it. Eliminating funding just eliminates access for the poor and lower middle class. So guess what defunding the liberal arts would do to public college education? It would take us back to Ancient Greece where learning how to write well, speak well, evaluate ideas, and learn other languages would be luxuries enjoyed only by the social elite. That's a really scary idea. Most of us are not rich enough to afford that type of education without public funding. Think about it: do you really want to see a future in our lifetime where a generation of college graduates will not be able to formulate an argument, evaluate issues, or communicate with others effectively? 
If fat needs to be trimmed from higher education, many other things could go on the chopping block, but tearing out the heart of what makes education valuable and liberating for most of us is wrong, and this is not some misguided attempt to save money---it's a way of ensuring that those at the top stay at the top by controlling how everyone else thinks. I could be wrong. I might just be paranoid, but do any of us really want to find out?

Please keep an eye on news regarding financial aid and state funding for higher education, and advocate for maintaining liberal arts curricula. We cannot afford to defund those departments.