A Case for the Liberal Arts

11 Nov

Several recently published articles exploring STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and math) majors in college and their supposed “value” have truly rubbed me the wrong way. In each of these articles, the author argues that STEM majors are clearly the “best” and “most valuable” choices for young students today.  I believe that by promoting such nonsense, many young people are being wrongfully influenced to follow the dreams of others.

Many people like to mock people who chose to major in literature, history, or languages in college.  I still receive snorts from those who hear that I am a literature and history double major.  They generally turn up their noses, chortle at my life choices, and ask, “And what is it that you plan on doing with those majors?” The negative connotation that seems to be following the liberal arts as college becomes more expensive and good-paying jobs become more rare is highly unnecessary.  What people seem to forget is that not everything in this life is about making tons of money (though that does help move thing along), and while you are here, you should probably pursue something that both interests you and inspires within you the natural drive to succeed, no matter what your chosen field.

I know several peers who chose to study STEM majors in college. A few of them studied engineering, a field that seems to receive endless acclaim from those who think it is the ONLY thing to study. All of the young people I know who went on to become engineers absolutely HATE the field of work they went into.  Of course there are engineers who likely love what they chose to do, but some kids end up being miserable in such fields. Why is this? More than likely, they were trying to please their parents. This is the biggest mistake any young student could make, and should be avoided at all costs.  My parents kept telling me to be a doctor, but I knew I did not have the inclination toward science to achieve such a thing. Instead, I followed my gut, and studied the subjects I loved.

In an article titled “College Majors Matter,” author Catehrine Rampell states that student “should…be thinking about whether the specific college degree they’re considering is marketable.” But what is marketability? Aren’t creative thinking skills and an ability to read, analyze, and create valuable skills? These are things the liberal arts major learns in school, and they are a dying art form.

A New York Times commenter who goes by the name Snacktastic made the following observation about college majors:

Well, this directly reflects on how we view society, work and the value of education. There is plenty about the liberal arts that allows people to develop a certain level of cultural and intellectual understanding and critical analysis that can not only help them challenge aspects of social norms but also is transferrable to other types of work and training. It also provides the kinds of social capital that allows people to enter into critical dialogs with people in power positions, allowing for some transmission of ideas from the bottom up rather than solely from the top down IF we find that diversity among scholars is an important value.

Unfortunately, at this period in our capitalistic economy, we are saying that more and more that this critical kind of understanding should remain the provenance of the elite who can afford to enter into these types of intellectual environments and as a result, will shape intellectual thought and dialog in this country. On the other hand, the average Jill and Jack should get the message that our worth to society should be predicated solely on our ability to function and feed into capitalism without any type of reflection of the problems of dominant social values and how that functions to maintain the status quo.

It’s easy to mock liberal arts students and to laugh at people’s debts, finding them stupid. Of course, we’ll pay the price as a society, if for nothing else, we’ll continue to look at every failure, blip and inequity as evidence of someone’s personal failures (Why didn’t they major in science? Why didn’t they go to a cheaper school?) and never question what is going on in society, in that we are commodifying everything. It’ll further diminish the kinds of critical dialog in this country or the idea that there is something wrong with the citizen worker model. Nothing will ever change until we have the ability to look at how problematic this Horatio Alger idea of hyperindividualism and a slavish devotion to strict versions of capitalism is.

Another commenter, Mr. Pointy, offered the following:

This new conventional wisdom that one should only major in something potentially lucrative is bumming me out. Also, it completely contradicts my lived experience where the only millionaire I know personally was an Art History major and now directs a department of a major auction house. I was an English major and make $90K in my arts-related job. My college friend who was a Women’s Studies major runs her own business (that has nothing to do with Women’s Studies, and she is a shining example of your major not determining what you end up doing in life). Her partner who was an art major? Runs a media company. Another friend who majored in linguistics? Works for a marketing firm and leads their team in charge of naming products and makes six figures (the second highest earner in my social circle after the millionaire Art History major). I have a musician friend who has a composition degree and now works for Apple on the iTunes team analyzing music (his job has something to do with the Genius algorithim but I don’t really understand it). I also know a handful of other art students who now work for Pixar, ILM and WETA. They all make decent livings. The folks I know who have been laid-off and are currently unemployed? Lawyers and MBAs, and one scientist. So much for conventional wisdom, huh?

I suppose it’s possible that I live in some kind of bubble/alternate reality where people with “fun” degrees and creative jobs are doing well and the people who went the “practical” route are struggling but I kind of doubt it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is choosing a major based on perceived practicality is no guarantee of future success. Likewise, choosing what is considered a “fun” or frivolous major is no guarantee of failure and a life of crushing debt and disappointment. If you have a vision of where you want to go, and drive and ambition, and know how to work connections, you can make anything work. Part of me fears all this talk around “practical” degrees is part of the brainwashing of the 99% — an effort to make sure we don’t dream or create, think only in practical terms, and conceive of ourselves only as cogs in the machine with narrowly defined purposes and set tasks to perform. We train for a job, we do that job, we buy stuff and do/say/think nothing to challenge the status quo.

What should a young student learn from these comments? It’s simple. Follow your heart and your dreams, and success will surely follow.

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