Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Ten

See also parts: [Zero] [One] [Two] [Three] [Four] [Five] [Six] [Seven] [Eight] [Nine]

In contrasting liberal arts education and 'jobs training', I've compared the latter to the construction of robots. This is fair for some kinds of jobs--like assembling parts to make a consumer product--where it's clear that automation is well-advanced, but what about those "high-paying" jobs that college is supposed to prepare people for? According to AAC&U's LEAP initiative, which included surveying employers [source], the liberal arts comes out looking pretty good. According to the report::

  • "Ability to innovate" is overwhelmingly important
  •  "Capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems, [which] is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”
  • "Ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning."
  • "When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education*, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy."
We should note, however, that:
The mission of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) is to make liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education.
Also, what people say on surveys is not necessarily indicative of how they act. I went looking for contrary opinions, and found "What's a Liberal Arts Education Good For?" at This article reinforces the survey with a philosophical argument, but some of the comments that follow are from unhappy liberal arts graduates. Here are some edited samples, emphasis added:
This is the same sort of garbage that got me where I am today, the poorhouse.
A liberal arts education is a hideous waste of time for nearly all those who get one. It prepares the graduate for absolutely nothing. If you emerge from 4 years of college with a degree and no one is recruiting you for a job, you just wasted 4 years of life, a lot of money and a whole lot of effort. --newsreader64

Liberal arts do not translate to making any money so that had better not be a factor in the choice. It is for rich people. --escobar
Recent personal events have led me to a rather different conclusion. I have a BA from a small liberal arts college, and an MA in a mushy semi-science (anthropology). [...] Now, without a professional degree, I can't even get an interview for positions which I could do with ease. I suspect this has a lot to do with the sheer volume of job-seekers on the market and the handy shortcut that a professional degree offers the HR person tasked with reading hundreds of resumes. So, despite my fervent belief in liberal arts, I am contemplating a return to school to get a law degree. -- kpod

This last comment has a kernel for the Cynic to chew on, and more fodder is served up by this last one:
As a newly minted grad with my Masters in History, fortunate enough to be teaching a a community college this semester, I am a big booster for Liberal Arts. I spent the first 25 years of my life pursuing a very successful career in a fortune 500 company and always wondered what it was about engineers and MBA's that left me feeling that some aspect of their education was lacking. After returning to school and starting with an associates degree in Liberal Arts the answer is now very clear. On the whole most of them had had the creative skills driven out of them by empirical doctrine and a value system of conformity. Give them a project or a goal and they were fine, immoral to a large degree when it came to people management but perfectly capable of meeting their objectives. --Paulo1
Although these samples are not guaranteed to be representative, it's worth considering these bullet points:

  • Some liberal arts degrees may not signal value to employers because of their apparent mismatch to job descriptions, and therefore these candidates for jobs are automatically screened out.
  • Professional (non-liberal arts) training may lend itself to conformity (or attract those kinds of people) and in the context of the job, immorality.
The first of these is just signalling, and as such is amenable to cynical or Cyncial attack--something liberal arts colleges ought to be good at. The second point is an argument that education in the humanities produces graduates with more humanity, and gets back to the 'employee as robot' metaphor. 

All of this boils down to the argument that liberal arts education can create valuable outcomes (those in the survey at the top), but that these are not easily marketed to employers. It's like they are saying they really want to eat healthy food, but belly up to the fast food counter in practice. Next time I'll walk deeper into the weeds. I find the more substantive issue more interesting: what place does a Cynic have in a bureaucracy?

Next: These Go to Eleven

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