February 20, 2012

The Liberal Arts Malaise

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What’s the difference between an English major and a large pizza? At least the pizza can feed a family of four.”

This quote, and others like it, was often repeated in my household by my father, a successful doctor and owner of a private practice. I’m not sure what brought about his particular contempt for literary or intellectual types, but what I do know is that he is not alone in making this characterization.

It is not for the practical-minded, shall we say, to consider the arts to be the soul of a civilization. To most people, what is studied in the halls of liberal arts colleges (including Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences) is useless, juvenile drivel. By this, I mean to say that such areas of study do not very easily answer the age-old parental question, “What are you going to do with that?”

It is unfortunate, though unsurprising, that with the downturn in the American economy of roughly the last five years, more and more people are saying that the American university model is not satisfying its supposed core purpose of educating young adults to be the workforce of the future. Not to use a cliché (I can hopefully move beyond clichés, thanks to my liberal arts education), but if I had a penny for every time I’ve heard politicians and business leaders say the words, “This country doesn’t produce enough engineers,” I would have enough money to disregard the careers my education isn’t helping me reach. If my math is wrong in this calculation, I am entirely indifferent — after all, I am a social science guy, not a math major.

I recently watched a video on Youtube titled, “Are we ready for the ‘Age of Abundance?’” in which theoretical physicist Michio Kaku and a number of other academic figures discussed the future of science and technology in the context of the future of the American economy and the world of business. One member of the panel, a research fellow from the MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business named Michael Schrage, was particularly critical of the American university system. In his musings on the question of how people will find jobs in a future economy, he said, “The economics are being transformed and I think it’s going to be a very interesting challenge, how people are going to find jobs … I don’t know what the answer to that is but I know what the answer is not. The answer is not four years in college.”

Though he did in fact critique the tendency of American educational institutions to design engineering programs as “flunk-out operations,” Schrage was also taking a hard line against the “uselessness” of such things as “degrees in sociology.” It’s debatable whether or not he was arguing that such a study is actually useless or rather just valueless given the perception that degrees lead to hefty pay checks; nonetheless, I would argue that a grand devaluation of the humanities and social sciences is taking place.

It is interesting to note that the word “scholarship” can be traced back to the Greek word for, believe it or not, leisure. Scholarship was the activity of those who, like the aristocrats of old, could afford to study things that were otherwise considered useless. These were impractical fields such as poetry, philosophy, literature and — later in history — the classics. But they were also disciplines that we think of now as practical studies: Biology, chemistry, physics,  economics, law and medicine were all at one point considered either branches of philosophy or magic. The great economist John Maynard Keynes once quipped that Isaac Newton, who was heavily interested in alchemy, “was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians.”

What once stood as metaphysical musing evolved over time into theory and scientific fact. There is no doubt in my mind that in Newton’s or Aristotle’s time, there were snarky leaders of commerce making fun of their ridiculous exploits. Nonetheless it was in minds of intellectuals like them that civilization progressed at all. It just happens to be in the areas of sociology and psychology, for instance, where great strides are being made today in the understanding of how human beings really work. This might or might not help the American job market in the long run, but I honestly don’t think either answer should impede anyone from studying these topics. The most important reason to study in such a field is interest and interest alone. Enthusiasm and fascination, after all, are what spark true inspiration, innovation and success — not big salaries.

A bachelor’s degree in Arts may not get you the hefty paycheck it would have in 1960 but that makes it no less important in the grand scheme. In the short-term, all we can do is study what we love — whether that be feminist literature, high finance, tending cows or building robots — and be happy. Enjoy the ride.

Original Author: Ian Cohen