Scapegoating the Liberal Arts
by Daniel Luzer
Too many students are getting useless degrees, complains the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, who argues that what Florida needs is more students with “practical” majors. This advice seems realistic, but it’s actually based on nothing but a myth stemming from some weird assumptions about the evils of the liberal arts.
According to an article a few days ago by Zac Anderson in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:
Reforming Florida’s college and university system will be one of [Gov. Rick] Scott’s top priorities when the state Legislature convenes in January, the governor said in an interview Monday with the Herald-Tribune. Leading Scott’s list of changes: Shifting funding to degrees that have the best job prospects, weeding out unproductive professors and rethinking the system that offers faculty job security.
Scott said Monday that he hopes to shift more funding to science, technology, engineering and math departments, the so-called “STEM” disciplines. The big losers: Programs like psychology and anthropology and potentially schools like New College in Sarasota that emphasize a liberal arts curriculum.
“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.”
This is a very odd way to look at economics. Encouraging people to study science and engineering is commendable, but when you’re talking about this only in terms of helping people get jobs, this is all just ridiculous. People don’t go to college to get jobs; they go to college to get an education. No one has ever demonstrated that students can’t get jobs because they studied the wrong things. That’s because this isn’t true.
If recent college graduates can’t get jobs in Florida, that’s probably just because Florida’s economy is in the toilet. That’s probably a more important thing to address.
What a good governor would do is say here’s what the state needs; let’s find a way to educate people to meet those needs. If Florida wants more engineers, because, say, it plans to build a lot of infrastructure in coming years, it makes sense to promote policies to make that happen. Perhaps the governor should consider making engineering degrees free for students. But there’s no real connection here between the academic majors the governor wants to hurt and the jobs that actually exist.
The problem is that the top 10 fastest-growing occupations in Florida are those as biomedical engineers, home health aides, medical scientists, biochemists and biophysicists, physician assistants, personal and home care aides, radiation therapists, financial examiners, dental hygienists, and physical therapist assistants.
Sure, more students focusing on STEM disciplines wouldn’t hurt, but it wouldn’t help much either. In most cases in order to do such jobs people either need graduate degrees (biophysicists) or they don’t need to go to college at all (dental hygienists).
In truth, one’s undergraduate degree really isn’t that important. Earlier in the week, as Adam Weinstein over at Mother Jones reported, Scott explained that his position had something to do with anthropology:
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.
But majoring in anthropology doesn’t make someone an unemployed anthropologist; it just makes him educated. And for most jobs, those professional office ones most people get right out of college, anthropology or women’s studies or history or sociology is good enough. Most employers say they just want applicants who can work hard and think critically. And that’s exactly what the liberal arts help students do very well.