Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Barking Up the Wrong Tree on Higher Education

Within higher ed there's been much buzz lately about a National Association of Scholars report released last week that took Bowdoin College (and, by implication, most elite liberal arts colleges) to task for being, in essence, too liberal. I have blogged about this previously; the fact that the final report said more or less what people expected it to say should come as no surprise. It has touched off conversations, at least in the world of elite liberal-arts colleges, about whether there is a sustained attack from the right against the liberal arts, and how you would decide what is "too liberal".

Along similar lines, we've seen politicians like Florida Governor Rick Scott (not known for his measured and carefully considered words) bashing certain majors (in his case, anthropology) and suggesting that students should major in areas with good job prospects and avoid the fuzzy liberal-arts stuff. It's an old argument, and unlikely to go away anytime soon; it's also a convenient, less obviously political hook for people who (like the NAS) are really interested in ideology but want to cloak themselves in the language of jobs and economic development.

Lost in this ongoing scrum is a core truth: what you major in is far less important than what skills you acquire in college. We've known this for years, but every once in a while someone releases yet another survey making the point, as this story in today's Inside Higher Ed does.

The message is the same every time: most businesses (being reasonably smart) want to know what you can do. Knowledge, especially technical knowledge, can be learned (if you know how to learn), and in many fields most of what you learn today will need to be re-learned in 5 years anyway. Moreover, knowledge that can't be effectively communicated is worthless. And it is a rare organization in which people work alone; generally we work in groups, or with other people in a variety of ways. So there's a whole set of skills there that can be learned across nearly any major (and should be).

This is not to say that major doesn't matter at all. If you want a job as an engineer, you need to major in engineering - in large part because of the base of knowledge and professional skills you need in that field. But if you're a great engineer who can't write, can't give a presentation, and doesn't work well with others, you're not a great engineer - you're at best a mediocre performer who is going to struggle in your career. Moreover, for all of the emphasis today on STEM careers there are lot of non-STEM things we need people to do, from teaching to management to organizational design to graphic design and creativity.

It seems to me that the shrill caterwauling over whether liberal arts is "too liberal" or whether some majors are appropriate for public dollars or not is coming from small, committed ideological tribes who have their own axes to grind. If we want to make higher education better, we are better off ignoring these folks - who are more interested in scoring points for their tribe than in the public good - and focusing on real-world conversations between businesses, higher education, and the communities they serve. Let's filter out the useless "debates" and focus our time on more useful pursuits - whatever we may have majored in in college.

No comments:

Post a Comment