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.

You might find it interesting and relevant that the engineering profession explicitly requires general education in the humanities and social sciences. I wonder if the Gov knows that they want well-rounded people in that profession?

You might find the curriculum requirements at the Colorado School of Mines give a good example of a minimum set of humanities requirements for an engineering major, and notice how they specifically engage the social and political environment in which one does engineering. And then look at their Humanities and Social Science majors and minors!
This is a very well timed posting for me. Yet again, Liberal Studies is under attack at my college and yet again, I as Dean, must review why we have have general education choice for students throughout the college. Literally the thought expressed is that The History of Art could be the best possible general education course for our Fine Arts students. Thanks for your posting!!
Well, and if the Gov had studied history he might have thought about looking at the employment history of various groups of college grads, because it hasn't always been the same.
this STEM nonsense also drives me nuts.. there aren't enough jobs in STEM to occupy even a small fraction of graduates.

Look at figure 7 in the 2010 BLS chartbook, "Employment and annual mean wages for the largest STEM occupations"
from which:
"Each of the 10 largest STEM occupations had employment of between 200,000 and 600,000. By comparison, the largest occupation overall, retail salespersons, had employment of nearly 4.2 million - more than the 10 largest STEM
occupations combined."

Also note there are only two jobs in those ten that aren't computer or IT - civil engineer and technical salesman. Now look at the salary data for Computer and Mathematical Occupations,

The mean annual salary for computer and mathematical occupations has risen about $1000 each year, or about 1.4%. If there was a shortage of STEM employees, salaries would be rising, but they are not.

Also, the unemployment rate for information technology matches the overall rate, so it's not even the case that employment for the technically talented is growing. At best it's holding steady.
I love the way the paragraph that begins "questions like that..." contains within itself a justification for the liberal arts' role in higher education (or, dare I say it, job training) without ever calling attention to that fact.

Well played, DD. Well played indeed.
Few would argue that the liberal arts have no value. When I attended Famous Technical University in the 70s, we had to take 2 semesters of calculus, 2 of physics, 1 of chemistry, and 8 --count 'em, 8 -- semesters of humanities. The administrators were fully on board with the idea of producing well-rounded engineers. FTU did not charge more if you took extra classes, I probably did 12 or more. Outstanding courses, especially in photography and music, they have stayed with me as few other courses have.

OTOH, majoring in liberal arts? That's something else entirely. Speaking as an employer, that's a relatively weak credential. We might be producing too many of those.

BTW, in my experience engineers are more likely to be truly critical and objective thinkers than liberal arts majors. Engineers are also more likely to be libertarians or independents, rather than members of either party's echo chamber.
Well I hold science degrees, and there were no general education requirements there.
Even langauge was minimal.
History and langauage, i did an high school. I am glad for that.
I feel sorry for the students of my institution,honestly, those pych 101 or sociology 101 are crappy classes with outdated material.
I do agree that the liberal arts are an important area of knowledge, but not for engineers.
At the same time, stem is not for everybody. Folks who cannot add fractions should not go on to study calculus, or go on to medical school-- they would be able to learn chemistry or biology.

I see the stem thing almost as a conspiracy to generate revenue.

I see college algebra for the business majors the sameway.
Show the Governor the comment above this one and see if that is what his supporters in the business world have in mind for graduates of the University of North Carolina.
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