Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The point of college and liberal arts education

Finally catching up on some Change11 stuff! This past week I've been thinking about a post by bioram on cognitive dissonance on liberal arts education. It seems like the topic has been quite popular in the past couple of weeks because another blog post came out from a student who decided not to go to college (because he wasn't sufficiently challenged), a blog post on the Chronicle on whether someone should pursue a B.A., and finally an episode on a television lawyer show (Harry's Law) regarding a student who moved out from his parents home because they were forcing him to go to high school when he was making more than $70,000 making "some twitter app."

I think that if people don't want to go to college, it's perfectly fine. If you are one of those few well positioned and talented individuals that can make over $70,000 on the web be my guest. In this case, however, I see college of a sort of insurance. If your startup goes belly up, or decides to sell the company for a ton of money and the new owners lay off half the employees, you may be out of luck! Sure, there is always a possibility that someone may snatch you up, but if you are sending out resumes, without a high school diploma (or GED) or college diploma, your chances are considerably less as far as HR departments are concerned.

Now for the rest of us who didn't (or won't) be making $70,000 on some internet startup, college, and a liberal arts education are important - however the benefits are never clearly articulated. This is both a problem with academia, and the job market. From the job market perspective (at least in the last 20 years, maybe more) there's been an expectation that people go to college and for them to get trained (not educated) to work in a specific sector. Usually these are the professional degrees: lawyers, doctors, accountants and so on. This expectation has also trickled down to other degrees as well, but not all degrees are professional degrees. Not all degrees have a one-to-one correspondence with a profession - and this is where we get into trouble. This is also where people get snarky and say "get used to saying 'would you like fries with that' if you get a [INSERT DEGREE] degree." This is not healthy for anyone involved.

Some undergraduate programs (like Northeastern University, if I am mistaken) do require all of their undergraduate to undertake a mandatory one year internship before they are eligible to graduate, it's part of their coursework. This way, regardless of your major, you have working knowledge of the working world and can figure out how the stuff you learned fits in with what you want to do. I think that this is a model to emulate. Sure, this will add another year of study, and most of the schools are reluctant to do this (since the climate in the US happens to be of the "be done sooner" variety) but I think it would be immensely beneficial.

Now, academia (and K-12 education) also has a role to play in this, and they are culpable as well. When I was an undergraduate I had to take a whole lot of general education requirements. Some in the arts, some in the sciences, some in the social sciences. I was told that "it would come in handy when I was at a dinner party and I needed to be able to talk intelligently about XYZ." Now, this was making a few assumptions:

  1. that I would want to attend or host dinner parties
  2. that their variety of liberal arts education was the only way to do things
  3. that I wouldn't be able to talk intelligently about things if I didn't take those courses.

For what it's worth, I did enjoy some of my "rounded education" courses as a undergraduate. Art History does come in handy, so does English (despite the typos I make, I think my thoughts are coherent enough on these blog posts). Philosophy was interesting, but I remember no specifics - at the same time, I think that learning how to argue a point was a better skill.

Academia's issue is how they articulate the importance of a liberal arts education. It is important, but they frame it in terms that they understand - not in terms that are relevant to us. Sure, as we grow up we do attend dinner parties, and we do want to get the respect of our peers and not sound like fools. At the same time, when kids go to college the don't care about dinner parties or corporate events. What they want is a degree to get a job. If you frame liberal arts education as getting a leg up when applying for jobs, and making it relevant to their finding-a-job frame of mind, the rest will follow (or so goes my theory).


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