What are you going to major in?
That is a time-honored question asked of young people by parents, friends and, increasingly, politicians. It has become common for governors, and even President Barack Obama, to question the value of academic majors that do not clearly correlate to a specific career (Obama was a political science major).
The complaint is that neither the federal government nor states should subsidize a college education that does not lead to a vocation.
This myopic practicality is disappointing for many reasons.
Every day, people with degrees in seemingly impractical fields such as English, philosophy or even art history energize our nation and its economy with creativity and innovation. Study in a range of academic disciplines teaches people to think critically, use data to construct arguments, communicate effectively, work independently and ultimately separate fact from crap.
These skills translate well into our world. Most Americans end up in a variety of occupations during their lifetimes, and a broad set of skills makes them more adaptable to those changes. And since many of the jobs that today’s graduates will eventually have do not yet exist, it seems wise to educate students with skills that are portable.
To be fair, some of the criticisms about liberal arts majors are justified.
Too often, faculty members construct majors designed to help students make the transition to graduate school in their fields. What’s more, sometimes in traditional liberal arts fields the desire to cover all knowledge areas permeates the curriculum.
A better strategy would be to combine disciplines in ways that enhance the graduates’ marketability.
It is axiomatic that universities are divided by disciplines in a clearly interdisciplinary world.
For instance, instead of an art history curriculum that covers each historical period and perhaps a language so that graduates can read foreign journals, maybe it should include communication classes or computer programming.
Modern languages might emphasize conversational skills that help majors work in a variety of fields instead of emphasizing literary analysis. Such change may strike some as heresy, but too many majors are structured as they were years ago.
For students going into the same field in graduate school, the onus is on graduate schools to complete the knowledge gap.
Most liberal arts majors, however, do not continue on in their major field. And that is a good thing.
I fervently believe that philosophy majors can thrive in business, but it is incumbent on the philosophy faculty to ensure their students are prepared for more than graduate programs.
When Florida Gov. Rick Scott asks, Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? the answer should be anthropology is an excellent investment because anthropology graduates should be just as ready for the working world as business majors.