What will become of today's middle class college students after they graduate? Opposing points of view come, on one side, from a voice of the education establishment, the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AACU), and on the other from rhetorical bomb thrower and author Aaron Clarey Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensible Guide to Choosing the Right Major.
Clarey asks: Who has your family hired recently? Whenever you buy a car, or drive on a road, or use a computer you indirectly hire an engineer. And when you put money in a bank, or go to the doctor, or consult an accountant, those people provide a useful service. But when did you ever hire a person competent in feminist theories? When did you last hire a sociologist or a philosopher, or a historian? Chances are - never - unless you were forced to by the involuntary expenditure of your tax dollars. Those degrees, according to Clarey, are worthless.
If Clarey is dismissive of intellectual pursuits, the AACU is the opposite. Part of its justification for liberal education:
“Many of the questions shaping higher education today spring from an interdependent world community in the midst of profound social, political, economic, and cultural realignments. Systems are being redesigned, relationships renegotiated, and modes of commerce and communication transformed. The problems we face—as individuals and societies—are urgent and increasingly defined as global: environment and development, health and disease, conflict and insecurity, poverty and hopelessness. Similarly, the goals of democracy, freedom, equity, justice, and peace are increasingly understood to encompass the globe and play out across multiple and complex cultures. Such global challenges cut across academic disciplines and require perspectives beyond the training and experience of most faculty members.”
While Clarey is an engaging and entertaining writer, the AACU webpage is turgid. Clarey writes for students and their parents; the AACU page is directed to college administrators and faculty. Beyond that, two words pepper the AACU website, but appear not at all in Clarey’s book: “globalization” and “21st Century.”
Clarey definitely has the easier job when it comes to entertainment value. He scores a lot of points ridiculing the women’s studies major, a pinata full of belly laughs. And surely, if any major is worthless it is women’s studies. That’s just too easy a target, and it’s hard to give Clarey much credit for the criticisms.
He’s on much weaker ground when he attacks historically legitimate disciplines such as English, philosophy, or history. “English has got to be the most worthless degree in the entire English-speaking world. The reason why should be blindingly obvious. You already speak English.” This is a silly argument, however entertaining. The problem with English is not that it is “worthless,” but rather that it has very little economic value. It’s been oversold - there are way too many English majors for the market to absorb.
The AACU has a much harder task: defending the value of the liberal arts. The difficulty of the read thus roughly corresponds to the difficulty of the task. Their webpage underplays any claim of direct economic benefit from a liberal education. The supposed benefits lie in citizenship, global awareness, and political sensibility, etc. But an argument for liberal education that ignores earning a living is a weak argument.
For all the talk about globalization, the AACU clearly has no clue as to what it really is. For college students, it means only one thing: lower salaries. Exceptions include those rare geniuses in business or the culture that beat the odds. But for the remaining 99%, a college degree is a commodity. They are competing against similarly educated people in China, India, Brazil, and around the world. All they have to offer the marketplace is a skill - surgery, law, accounting, programming, writing, etc. - that they must perform at least as well and as cheaply as the competition or a computer.
For an example of the value of a liberal arts degree, a WSJ article describes “Eric Probola, who got a bachelor's degree in global cultural studies from Point Park University in Pittsburgh in 2010, accepted an administrative assistant's job at a nonprofit there for less than $30,000 a year.” Many, many BA graduates are working as secretaries, plumbers, and pizza deliverers. I know more who are going back to school to get nursing degrees. Why didn’t they do it right the first time?
The AACU uses the term “21st Century” as shorthand for “we’re hip and we’re planning for the future.” Clarey, on the other hand, doesn’t account for the future at all. His solution is that students should major in disciplines that are well paid today, and he chooses engineering as the best example.
Ten years ago he might have suggested law school, when it really was a ticket into the upper middle class. Since then, both technology and globalization have put paid to that. The same trends may occur in engineering and other disciplines. Clarey doesn’t address this possibility at all.
In response, I'm guessing that he might say something like, 'OK, I’m sorry about the lawyers. I really am. And maybe you’re right that ten or twenty years from now engineers will suffer the same fate. I can’t predict the future, and neither can you. But I do know that a student graduating in engineering today will move into a well-paid, upper middle class job. A student graduating in Environmental Policy Studies, with a senior thesis entitled “The Role of Women Farmers on Environmental Sustainability in Southern Malawi,” will not.' Fair enough. Still, Clarey would benefit from studying the Three Laws of Future Employment.
The AACU argument goes something like this:
- Globalization means that problems (climate change, human rights, etc.) that once were local become global.
- Governments, NGOs, and the United Nations, along with multinational corporations, will all take steps to address these pressing concerns.
- Students majoring in the liberal arts will increasingly find jobs managing global polity.
- Thus students who understand culture, politics, people, language, and science will be in demand.
In a word, the liberal arts represent the future.
In my view every step in this chain of reasoning is flawed. But the fatal flaw is economic. Where will governments, NGOs or the UN get the money to hire all these liberal arts students? Are American pensioners going to sacrifice their social security checks to employ the Malawi expert above, or are Malawi farmers going to chip in part of their $3/day profit for the purpose? Clarey is right: most liberal arts graduates will not earn a middle class living. Economically speaking, the degrees are worthless.
Photo of Student on Steps from the University of Denver.
Daniel Jelski is a professor of chemistry at SUNY New Paltz, and formerly served as the dean of science and engineering.