In ancient Greece, the liberal arts were defined as those subjects that were considered essential for citizens to master in order to take an active part in civic life, from debating in public to serving on a jury. The requirement that students educate themselves on subjects like philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, and logic was meant to produce citizens who were knowledgeable, virtuous, and articulate. In this way, the liberal arts have since their conception been a political issue, but today the nature of that political connection has taken a drastic turn.
While the liberal arts still play a major role on most college campuses today, the value placed on the skills they teach students has come under attack from a growing number of politicians. The majors encompassed under the liberal arts umbrella have become fodder for a growing war over the future of higher education, with a number of high profile politicians deriding the study of subjects like anthropology and foreign language as a waste of time and money, with some even implying that a glut of liberal arts majors was a contributing factor to the economic troubles the U.S. has faced over the past few years.
True or not, it’s hard to ignore the gathering assault on all things liberal arts being waged by a small but growing cadre of politicians, businesspeople, and even media pundits. With many who’ve spoken out against the liberal arts in positions of great power and financial means, it’s distressing to consider what this passionate debate against the liberal arts could mean for the future of such a storied and, until now, respected aspect of academic preparation and thought.
Why Target the Liberal Arts?
Over the past decade or so, the economy has taken a serious beating. Unemployment skyrocketed, businesses crumbled, and Americans felt a sense of uncertainty that they simply weren’t familiar with, having basked in the economic boom years that the decades before had brought. The downturn was especially hard on new college grads who often emerged from college saddled with debt and unable to find work in an already over-saturated job market.
While numerous factors contributed to the troubling economic distress faced by young adults, many politicians instead started looking for a scapegoat, which some believe they have found in colleges themselves, or more precisely in college liberal arts programs. These programs have been blamed for producing grads who aren’t prepared to take on the available jobs in the marketplace and wasting valuable government funding that could be going toward repairing the local economy and getting people back to work.
One example is North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, who said he wanted to make major changes to higher ed to get the economy in the state back on track, stating, “I am going to adjust my educational curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs, as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt. What are we teaching these courses for if they’re not going to help get a job?”
Other governors, like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Florida’s Rick Scott have echoed these sentiments, stating that the liberal arts just aren’t preparing graduates for the real world. While encouraging students to take on coursework that will help them get jobs may sound good (it’s hard to argue against economic recovery), it’s not a position that’s based much, if at all, in fact.
This indictment of the liberal arts isn’t just a handy talking point for politicians; it also helps to direct the blame away from some of the real causes of the economic crisis: the deregulation of industry and business that allowed for widespread corruption and the growth of serious economic inequities. Many of the same politicians who’ve pointed fingers at the liberal arts played a pivotal role in helping these policies come to pass (some with the aid of funding from big businesses), so directing attention at another source of blame is not only easier but also serves a key political function.
The Liberal Arts Aren’t a Dead End
Liberal arts programs have been derided time and time again for failing to produce students who will have in-demand skills and go on to play active and profitable roles in the economy. It’s true that liberal arts grads have suffered in the economic downturn and may remain unemployed, but they’re not the only ones. The poor economy has hurt students hoping to find nearly every kind of work, not just those in the liberal arts. In actuality, in the years prior to the recession, despite an increase in liberal arts majors, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that liberal arts majors had incredibly low rates of unemployment. It was not until the economy began to decline that liberal arts majors had trouble finding work, a fact that helps exculpate them from causing the downturn itself.
Other research suggests that a student’s college major may not matter that much in the long run. A longitudinal study conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that the wage differentials between career-oriented majors and academically-oriented majors were all but eliminated within 10 years after graduation. So while liberal arts grads might be earning less initially, those gaps narrow significantly as time goes on. In fact, a study by the Social Science Research Council found that students with the skills emphasized by the liberal arts — the ability to analyze, reason and write — were more likely to be better off financially, making it hard to argue that certain majors are inherently better than others in terms of career success.
The STEM Solution
Politicians aren’t just calling for an end to wasted tax dollars on liberal arts programs; they’re also encouraging colleges and universities to focus more on spending and supporting degree programs in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Florida’s governor Rick Scott said in 2011, “You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”
Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, has similar plans for his state, announcing in 2012 that he hopes to charge higher tuition for programs in the liberal arts to encourage students to pursue STEM majors instead. Even big names like Bill Gates and Barack Obama have stressed the importance of training more students in STEM and the emphasis on these subjects has increased at all levels of education, from K-12 and up.
This drive towards technical and scientific degrees is based on the assumption that there aren’t enough qualified graduates to fill open positions in these fields and that state and federal economies are suffering as a result. The problem is, however, that that’s an assumption that isn’t based on a lot of solid research and data.
While there are certainly are studies that point to major gaps between job openings and qualified professionals in STEM, far more studies say quite the opposite. According to research by the National Science Board, the country is actually turning out three times as many STEM grads as the economy can absorb into jobs related to their majors. This may already be having a negative effect on employment rates in certain fields, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting a doubling in the unemployment rate for electrical engineers between 2008 and 2009. While the 8.6% unemployment rate among electrical engineers is low when compared to unemployment overall, it’s a record high for the field, demonstrating that the struggling economy isn’t just impacting those with liberal arts and non-STEM degrees.
And what if it does turn out that the U.S. needs more STEM professionals? The data is on liberal arts’ side there, too. According to a study by Nobel laureate and biochemistry academic Thomas R. Cech, graduates of liberal arts colleges earn doctorates in the sciences at nearly twice the rate of graduates of other institutions. What’s more, while only 3% of college graduates get their degrees at liberal arts colleges, a sizable 20% of scientists elected into the National Academy of Sciences over the past two years come from liberal arts institutions.
A Dangerous Path
There has always been a relationship between politics and education in the U.S., but in recent years drastic changes and dire predictions about the future of America’s students have increasingly brought the politic rhetoric and reform into the classroom. As politicians increasingly weigh in on higher education, often without being truly informed about what’s really happening, they’re having a bigger impact on what and how students learn than ever before.
It’s a risky endeavor to entrust the future of higher education to individuals who, while they might have the best intentions, still have a political agenda that has to speak to certain members of the public. It’s no coincidence that nearly all of the politicians who’ve spoken out against the liberal arts’ role in higher education are from conservative political parties and many more have business backgrounds; lashing out against the liberal arts speaks to beliefs and motivations of their political base.
Yet higher education, liberal arts and STEM alike, is much more than a political talking point and won’t necessarily thrive under the same kind of supply-and-demand rhetoric that keeps businesses afloat. In fact, one of the greatest virtues of the American system of higher education is that students have the freedom to choose which majors reflect their interests and career desires, not just those that will find them the highest paying jobs.
Even aside from the political aspects, most politicians speaking out about the reforms that need to happen in higher education know little about what it takes to run a college, teach a classroom full of students, or really equip young minds with the skills and abilities necessary to thrive in the modern world. They are not experts in education, yet their decisions have much more far-reaching impact and greater consequences on the future of higher education in our country than those who are. That’s troubling, not only for the liberal arts, but for any degree program that falls out of favor. Giving politicians this kind of power without equipping them with, or at least advising them on, the realities of the educational system could lead to major changes in education; ones that aren’t necessarily for the better and cater not to the needs of students or educators but to businesses, lobbyists, and the politicians themselves.
The Future of the Liberal Arts
The criticism being faced by the liberal arts isn’t just poor PR; it can and has resulted in major losses in funding from state sources. Drops in funding mean fewer resources for undergraduates and graduate students alike, and in some cases, the dismantling of some liberal arts programs entirely (SUNY is one example, losing philosophy and Russian to budget cuts). If some politicians have their way, liberal arts programs may be limited in size or cost significantly more than other majors to pursue, giving students less choice in what college major to choose.
Yet there is hope. Politicians haven’t been given a carte blanche to gut liberal arts education, and in fact, many, if not most, have faced serious criticism from their constituents for their comments against liberal arts education. While more may jump on the liberal arts bashing bandwagon in the coming years, many others are pointing to the growing body of research that supports liberal arts education, even in a poor and uncertain economy.
What’s more, around the world, the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges are becoming increasingly favored. Even China, traditionally focused heavily on STEM majors for students, is beginning to embrace the liberal arts as a way to help students learn to be more creative, innovative thinkers and better communicators, skills global business leaders say they’re often lacking. In fact, China’s STEM-centered system is an example of why a move away from the liberal arts is such a poorly thought out decision, as grads not only face major competition for jobs, but also lack the skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. It’s not just Asia that’s embracing the liberal arts either. Even in Europe, liberal arts schools are growing in popularity as many policymakers are seeing the benefits of providing students will a well-rounded education before they go on to specialize in a field of choice.
Dismantling the liberal arts narrows the focus of higher education and changes its purpose from a place to expose students to diverse ideas and ways of thinking to a more prestigious version of a vocational school. That can’t be a good thing for students or future employers who need free thinking problem solvers to take on the challenges of building new businesses and conducting cutting-edge research. Liberal arts isn’t just a matter of ensuring students know the fundamentals of philosophy or history; it’s also fosters critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and cultural intelligence. Those skills will outlast practical preparation for any job that exists today and ensure that students are ready to take on whatever challenges the next decades pose. Hopefully, both students and policymakers will be wise enough to recognize the benefits the liberal arts present (both alone and in collaboration with other more technical skills) so that the future workforce is one that’s prepared to bring American business and research into the next decade and beyond. If not, some of today’s politicians could go down in history as playing a big role in drastically changing higher education in America, though perhaps not for the better.