an example of really, really bad college advice

As more Americans are rethinking the value of a college education, some humanities scholars are advocating not just more college, but the least employable majors possible.

studying in library
Photo by Rob Bye

With the uncertain state of today’s economy, college education in general is being put under the microscope, scrutinized for how much value it really adds to a future worker’s resume, and at least one vocal pundit is arguing that college doesn’t even matter on popular blogs and business news sites, irresponsibly telling a whole generation of high school students to take some time off and explore their opportunities instead. And while it could be beneficial to really experience the world before settling down on your career path, most of us don’t have the trust funds to entertain this as a viable option. Still, the question remains. How relevant will the degree you’ll earn be, and how much are companies willing to pay for your skill when you’re done? Will your college teach you what you need to know, or will you end up with a lot of esoteric, theoretical knowledge, and only a passing grasp of the actual practice? Basically, is your college degree really worth what you paid?

This issue didn’t completely miss academics of course, and college administrators are thinking how to justify their programs and make sure students really get what they need out of undergraduate and graduate tracks. Since we’re dealing with academia, progress has been glacial at best, and many problems still remain while potential ideas are still just being circulated. And unfortunately, some of these ideas aren’t exactly what we’d call realistic or sober. In a recent column at the Chronicle of Higher Education, a vague laundry list of things colleges could do better hides this blissfully detached whopper…

What should happen to students at college? They should become more thoughtful and interesting people. But some 64 percent of undergraduate students are enrolled in vocational majors instead of choosing fields like philosophy, literature, or the physical sciences. We’d like to persuade them that supposedly impractical studies are a wiser use of college and ultimately a better investment. The undergraduate years are [a time] that will never come again, a time to liberate the imagination and stretch one’s intellect without worrying about a possible payoff.

Hmm, let me see. Why are 64% of undergrad students enrolled in vocational majors? Could it possibly have something to do with the fact that they’ll need to pay off tens of thousands in student loans and actually get an in-demand, stable job to feed themselves after they’re done? With all due respect to the authors of this piece, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, how many wanted ads for philosophers or literary critics have they seen on Monster.com or LinkedIn lately? I can tell you there are plenty of listings for nurses, programmers, medical technicians, teachers who work with special needs children and engineers, and that’s why instead of reading what Nietzsche had to say on religion or what Plato thought of Greek politics in his Socratic dialogues, those undergrads are cramming for math tests and biology finals. The U.S. needs STEM disciplines very badly and the aging Baby Boomers are ensuring that the healthcare industry will need to keep hiring for the next several decades. Likewise, there will almost always be some room for economists and business majors.

Another important thing to consider is what those who sign paychecks actually need. STEM grads are growing so few and far between, the military wants to invest a whole lot of money into promoting math, science and engineering to future college students. Note how they aren’t in such a big rush to fund philosophers. That’s because computer scientists, physicists, chemists, and engineers can come up with an idea and turn it into a real product while a humanities grad probably won’t even know where to begin. The same applies to the vast majority of employers. They need doers and thinkers when they require that job applicants have a bachelor’s degree or better, not just one or the other. So while its true that a young college freshman just out of school is going to have a rare and limited opportunity for total intellectual freedom, that freedom could come at a major cost and taking a “eh, worry about it later, after you’re done” attitude espoused by Hacker and Dreifus is a very good way to end up in your early twenties, in serious debt, and facing virtually zero job prospects while those who embraced scientific and vocational majors are interning and at least going to interviews.

Colleges need to do a better job of funding future scientists, offer more and better job placement services for their graduates, and create tough courses that give students a thorough understanding of the subject matter, as well as hands on experience out in the field. That’s how they can make education pay off in the short term, not by sacrificing research institutions and encouraging students to get intellectually stimulating, but useless majors which won’t allow them to provide for themselves and saddle them with toxic, impossible to discharge debts, as Hacker and Dreifus advocate. If you’re really interested in philosophy, there are hundreds of tomes, manuscripts and resources for you to explore on your own time. You don’t need to pay several hundred bucks per credit hour to be told to read them and write a paper on what you thought. What you need is a career.

# education // college / college degrees / educational standards


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