Actually, Conservatives Should Champion Liberal Arts Degrees
Publishing a book means going on radio shows and talking about whatever the host finds interesting. It is, after all, their show. Recently a host began his time with me by offering the following disclaimer: “I’m not one of those guys who says nobody should go to college. No, if you want to be an engineer or an ophthalmologist, go to college. But you need to have a plan.”
The man’s perspective was one I’ve heard before: College is for getting the specific skills needed for employment in technical or applied fields. Think engineering, architecture or nursing. “You need to have a plan” — that is, a plan to earn a living based directly on the specific knowledge and skills imparted at college. If you’d like to study something mushy like philosophy, literature or history, your best bet is to save yourself a fortune by making regular use of your local library.
I’m all for students having a sense of where their studies can take them professionally. And I’m a big supporter of students having a realistic assessment of their likely earnings prospects and using that assessment to inform how they pay for college. But college isn’t only for those pursuing applied fields. If you want to be an editor, a journalist, a history teacher or a high school counselor, your chances of landing work in these fields without a BA are slim to none. But why is the “college is only for applied fields” view increasingly common?
Anti-College Sentiment Morphs Into a Shortsighted Utilitarian Mindset
Over the last decade many cultural observers, particularly on the right, have raised legitimate questions about the value of college. Their reasoning includes these generalized observations: Sticker price tuition rates are rising unsustainably, faculty are lowering standards, students spend more time partying than studying, employers are dissatisfied with the quality of graduates, and many recent graduates are underemployed. There must be a better way, the argument goes. The financial gains aren’t worth the upfront costs and the time spent.
While recognizing that these critiques are not without some validity, most conservatives reject a radical “let’s ditch college altogether” view. But sometimes a softer anti-college sentiment morphs into a shortsighted utilitarian mindset. Because college is expensive, these folks reason, we need to think of college in strictly financial terms. Students should prioritize fields that pay handsomely. And they should stick to learning information that will be directly applicable in the workforce. Forget the sentimental fluff like late medieval literature. More computer programming, mechanical engineering and corporate finance. Less philosophy, English and history.
The Liberal Arts Don’t Deserve Their Bad Rap
This utilitarian mindset finds support on at least two fronts. First, given our slow-growth, low participation rate economy, recent STEM graduates (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are more likely to be immediately employed in something related to their studies. Not surprisingly, they also tend to earn higher starting salaries.
Second — and more significantly — the liberal arts have been eviscerated by left-leaning academics who view the history, cultural heritage and great books of Western civilization not as a legacy to be preserved and examined but as a burden to be deconstructed and overcome. These scholars have largely jettisoned the required reading of “dead white men” who disproportionately influenced our nation’s founding and values, and replaced classic courses with trendy fluff courses exploring pop cultural icons like Lady Gaga.
But the liberal arts don’t deserve their bad rap. Just because some schools have made a mess of the humanities doesn’t mean the fields themselves lack value. Moreover, at quality universities — including many evangelical and Catholic schools, and places like Hillsdale College — which haven’t watered down their liberal arts programs, students are still assigned healthy doses of serious reading and writing.
As a result, these students develop the intellectual wherewithal, communication savvy, work ethic and resiliency that employers of all types are seeking. It may be harder to measure whether their first job is “directly” related to their studies, but their education does play a role in their long-term success, not only in that job but in their career and in the totality of their life.
But what about income? The long-term earnings of college graduates is determined more by employment sector than by what a person studied. Take English major Mitt Romney, or medieval history and philosophy major Carly Fiorina, as two of many examples. Indeed, there’s evidence that a liberal arts-style education is correlated with greater likelihood of becoming a leader, being considered ethical, appreciating arts and culture, and leading a fulfilling, happy life.
If you’re interested in the humanities, don’t fall for the anti-college hype informed by the stereotypes of college at its worst. Find a school where you can get an affordable, quality education, somewhere you can shine, somewhere you can write the early chapters of a compelling life narrative and launch yourself in the direction of your passions and talents. Take rigorous classes from professors who care about students and academic excellence. Pursue relevant volunteer and work experiences. Develop a sense of professionalism, a can-do or will-learn attitude, and perseverance in the face of difficulty. You’ll be fine. And you’ll be much better off than if you hadn’t gone to college.
Alex Chediak’s book Beating the College Debt Trap: Getting a Degree Without Going Broke (Zondervan, 2015) helps students make informed decisions about how to pay less for college, earn more during college, and set themselves up for financial independence after college. His previous books include Thriving at College and Preparing Your Teens for College.