Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Education isn't just for employees

David Brooks notices, "When the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job."
This has led to a "nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate."

He is troubled by this trend and makes a case for why employers should hire Humanities Majors: "Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo."

While I applaud Brooks' effort to defend the Humanities, I don't think his argument is effective here. Science and Engineering Jobs require technical skills which a Humanities Major will not prepare students for. And as Globalization continues, more and more jobs will become technocratic in nature.

Having said that, a student should still study the Humanities in college. He should study the Humanities not because it will make him a better employee (it might not), but because he will be MORE THAN an employee after he graduates. He will be a citizen, a parishioner, a father etc. In order to perform these roles well, he needs to be able to reason about the goods at stake. Otherwise, he will merely be spouting prejudices or untutored opinion on important issues: How large a role should Government play in Society? What is Sin? What is the Good Life and how can I impart it to my children?

The current situation is a college educated person speaks thoughtfully when it comes to his profession because he has been systematically trained in that, but he is unable to piece together a coherent thought when it comes to politics, culture, or religion. And the health of a Society depends upon more than just its GDP.

This does not mean every college student should major in the Humanities; far from it. The only ones who should actually major in the subject are the ones who will play a role in shaping public opinion: teachers, professors, journalists, statesmen, and artists. The rest can major in any trade so long as they take the required basics: 2 semesters of English, Government, History etc. The current problem is students can opt out of the basics through a myriad of ways. They can take AP Tests, Summer Community College Courses, or some technical variation of the required course e.g. Business or Medical Ethics in lieu of Introduction to Philosophy. And if they do happen to take the actual course, then it is taught by some graduate student in an auditorium filled with other students.

My argument is the harder sell because parents and students want to hear how a particular major will land a job. But the important thing to keep in mind is your 9-5 job will not be the only job you'll have.

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