Thursday, January 07, 2010

What Are You Going to Do With That?

One of the saving graces of working at a community college is that I don't hear the dreaded "what are you going to do with that?" question directed at students who major in liberal arts. At the two-year level, the answer is frequently obvious: transfer.

From this neck of the woods, "liberal arts" also gets called "gen ed," and it forms the easily-transferable core of many (though not all) majors at four-year schools. While articles like these detail the agonies of philosophy departments at some four-year colleges, our philosophy sections routinely fill, thank you very much. In fact, philosophy is actually a moneymaker for us, since it doesn't require expensive labs (though it's a fun thought exercise to imagine the Nietzsche lab). We have great full-time faculty there, good adjuncts aren't that hard to find -- any underemployed philosophers out there? -- and the classes transfer beautifully. The same holds in most of the other evergreen disciplines in the liberal arts -- English, history, poli sci, psychology, etc.

Although you wouldn't know it from the national political discourse, in which community colleges are routinely reduced to 'remedial education plus workforce development,' the largest single major on my campus is the liberal arts transfer major. My college isn't unique in that, either. The appeal of the program is severalfold. It gives students two full years' worth of easily transferable credits, but at the cc tuition level. It gives students a chance to sample courses in many different parts of the curriculum, to see what clicks for them. It gives students who truly don't know what they want a couple extra years to figure it out. When you're 17 or 18, fresh out of high school, and lost, the value of this is not to be underestimated. I've had some bracingly frank discussions with parents in which they've said variations on "Johnny doesn't know what the hell he wants, so I'd rather he floundered here for $3,000 a year than there for $50,000 a year." It's not exactly "learning for learning's sake," but it creates the opportunity. I've seen clueless 18 year olds become motivated 19 year olds; they just needed a little more time and experience before the lightbulb went on.

(Btw, the 'fresh out of high school' demographic is our fastest-growing segment. Our student body is getting younger, more traditional, and more full-time. With those changes, the liberal arts major just gets more popular.)

It's not for everybody, of course. If you know from the get-go that you want to be an engineer or nurse, there's a pretty strict chain of prereqs you need to follow. (Interestingly, that's less true for becoming a medical doctor.) But I get a little cranky every time I read a statement from a politician who should know better claiming that community colleges are all about job preparation. That's part of the mission, but only a part, and frankly, that part is harder to sustain over time because the market keeps changing. "Can't miss" fields have a way of missing after a few years, what with market cycles, technological change, and people flooding them. The job projections we were told in the late 90's were pretty accurate, if you substitute "Bangalore" for "America." Five years ago, nursing was a can't-miss field; now, new grads have to really scrap for jobs.

None of this refutes the battles that some liberal arts departments are facing at some schools, of course, but it suggests that the picture is more subtle than a straightforward "business is crowding us out." On the ground here, the liberal arts are alive and well.