Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Peeling the Onion

A couple years ago, The Onion ran a story headlined “Unemployment High Because People Keep Blowing Their Job Interviews.”

I was reminded of that in reading about the governor of North Carolina, Patrick McCrory, and his fusillades against the liberal arts in general and gender studies in particular.  He’s the latest in a string of governors to declare that the recession lingers because students keep studying the wrong things, like he did.  (McCrory was a double major in education and political science.)  If only public colleges and universities would stop teaching the liberal arts and just focus on STEM, he implied, all would be well.

Um, no.  

The layers of mistake are many and heavy, so I’ll just pick a few of the more flagrant ones.  

The job market for college graduates was pretty good from about 1997 to 2000; it fell apart in 2001.  Whoever invented the liberal arts in 2001 must have felt like a real jerk.  Then the market got pretty good again from about 2005 to early 2008 before falling off a cliff in late 2008.  Were 2008’s graduates markedly dumber or worse-trained than 2007’s?  Did philosophy suddenly outpace business as the most popular undergraduate major?

Questions like that are symptoms of “critical thinking.”  While some people may consider critical thinking suspect and even subversive, the business case for it is pretty strong.  It helps avoid stupid mistakes, and it helps prevent wasteful uses of resources.  It isn’t everything, of course -- creativity matters greatly, and awareness of the past is no small thing -- but without it, it’s awfully easy to fall prey to fools and fads.

Like governor McCrory, I was a poli sci major.  But that wasn’t all I took.  I also took chemistry, and math, and music, and history, and literature, and sociology, and religion, and economics.   In the course of doing that, I learned plenty of facts that I’ll never use on the job -- did you know that there were five eclipses in 1678? -- but also some skills that I never stop using.  

Unlike governor McCrory, I have attended any number of employer advisory board meetings for various academic programs at several different colleges.  And the employer feedback is always the same, regardless of program: employers can train, but they’re counting on us to teach.  That means the basics: communication skills, work ethic, problem solving, and a basic sense of how the world works.  These can come from various places, but their traditional home -- and if Academically Adrift is correct, their most successful home -- is the liberal arts.  That’s why even our technical majors have “general education” requirements.  We want to ensure that future engineers, nurses, and chemists are capable of discerning meaning from complicated prose, of juggling multiple points of view, and of making themselves understood in writing.  

The gender studies example is particularly bad.  To my mind, the hallmark of an educated mind is learning how to re-see something you thought you understood, using an entirely new perspective.  Gender studies is particularly good at that.  It’s the same skill set that the best technologists have.

Speaking of, anyone who follows technology knows how quickly today’s cutting-edge skill becomes tomorrow’s afterthought.  I saw that firsthand at DeVry in 2001, when all those telecom majors abruptly became unemployable as Y2K came and went and the dot-com boom crashed.  If you don’t have the adaptability that comes from a deeper understanding, you can go from hot ticket to unemployable in short order.

But honestly, I don’t think even he believes what he’s saying.  Duke and Chapel Hill didn’t achieve national prominence on basketball alone, and I have to assume he knows that.  Recessions don’t happen because candidates blow interviews or because colleges teach history.  Let’s stop pretending that The Onion is the truth.