The Breakdown

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The crisis in liberal arts college education

College may not be worth it for some students
College may not be worth it for some students Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Kenneth Anderson has a long-ish post about the declining return on a liberal arts — versus a "science, technology, engineering, mathematics" (STEM) — education. The gist of it is that liberal arts isn't necessarily a bad investment, but that the market for lib arts has been weakened by changes in the economy — and by higher ed's inability to educate graduates for what the market actually needs. That is, verbal analysis and basic quantitative skills.

As Anderson puts it: "The traditional promise of the quality humanities or liberal arts major — not a technical skill set, but generalist analytic skills in reading, writing, basic maths, and strong communications skills — has somehow eroded and colleges fail to convey those skills."

There's another problem, which is that if you invest in this unmarketable education, you wind up spending more than you can realistically expect to earn back, because the value of liberal arts skills has been so relentlessly degraded. And guess what? The entire economy is now stuck with a low-growth future. This is fueling the notion — one I find fairly repellent — that too many people are going to college and that we should reshape the university system along more overtly elitist lines.

Again, Anderson:

[T]here is a group of people with a vested interest in pushing the agenda that too many people go to college, especially borrowing money for it — rich people’s children who don’t need loans for university. Reducing the competition is a dandy idea from their view.  And even if they don’t think that way — the fact of reducing the number of kids in higher education is almost certainly a recipe for creating not just greater income inequality, but increasing the harsh qualitative fact of class division, particularly between sectors of white collar workers, the lower and upper elites of the New Class that I discussed several weeks ago in another post.  What else would one call the loss of upward mobility as a possibility?  “The rich really are different from you and me — they went to college.”  In our world, that sounds so 19th century Britain, people of great intelligence, drive and possibility, stuck “below the stairs” because of class rigidity.  We thought we had been doing away with that starting with the rise of the post-war Baby Boom; its return upon its children and grand children is a dismaying thought.

But we haven't done away with it, as demonstrated by Charles Murray and his campaign against the wrong kind of people going for a liberal arts education.

Meanwhile, we're having all kinds of problems paying for public higher education and providing the kind of financing for students to pursue it that won't set them on a course for bankruptcy.

You can say that we're at one of those moments,  when it's become fashionable to look at what the university has always, at its core, been about — a liberal, four-year education — and insist that those skills have be invalidated by modern life and that only STEM degrees make sense, except for wealthy dilettante who possess the treasure and implied future leisure to not really play hard in the economy of the future.

Actually, I think we're at one of those moments when we need to look more closely at fundamentals, as Anderson implies. 

I got what I consider to be a very good core liberal arts education, which has enabled me to be an effective communicator in a variety of professions. It also grounded me well enough in quantitative skills that I can handle science, engineering, technology, and a certain amount of higher financial and economic math. 

I've seen my own children, due to certain educational choices that my wife and I have made, replicating and improving on this. I do worry, however, when I deal with recent college grads that while they have some impressive specialized skills, they sometimes lack fundamentals.

The younger generation can manage, operate, and create with technology in pretty stunning ways. In journalism, this has opened up new vistas in storytelling. But when it comes to the fundamentals of communication and analysis, they seem to take longer to get up to speed. And they do get there. They just don't do it as often right out of the box.

If they were a basketball team, they'd be good at running plays — and even better at diagramming them! — but not so good at passing and shooting.

It's not that this is a problem. It's just something that's different from what I, at a somewhat more mature career stage, am used to.

So the young folks are technical, rather than general. And why be general, if it will lead to such a struggle when it comes to getting a job?

Because you tend to need the general later. Specialists and technicians typically make less-than-stellar managers and leaders. By jumping the gun on specialization — by baking it into education earlier and earlier — we cheat ourselves out of what we truly need to stay competitive, which is the ability to run complex undertakings.

I think a core liberal arts education — of the old school (sorry) — is the best prep for this. 

So what do you think? Is a liberal arts education a waste of time and money? Or does it just need to go back to its roots to be reinvigorated?

Read more from DeBord Report about education:

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