Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree?

I was a floundering humanities graduate too, but in a brutal job market, maybe we need to rethink what we teach

Published June 19, 2011 3:01PM (EDT)

Every year or two, my husband, an academic advisor at a prestigious Midwestern university, gets a call from a student's parent. Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so's son is a sophomore now and still insistent on majoring in film studies, anthropology, Southeast Asian comparative literature or, god forbid … English. These dalliances in the humanities were fine and good when little Johnny was a freshman, but isn't it time now that he wake up and start thinking seriously about what, one or two or three years down the line, he's actually going to do?

My husband, loyal first and foremost to his students' intellectual development, and also an unwavering believer in the inherent value of a liberal arts education, tells me about these conversations with an air of indignation. He wonders, "Aren't these parents aware of what they signed their kid up for when they decided to let him come get a liberal arts degree instead of going to welding school?" Also, he says, "The most aimless students are often the last ones you want to force into a career path. I do sort of hate to enable this prolonged adolescence, but I also don't want to aid and abet the miseries of years lost to a misguided professional choice."

Now, I love my husband. Lately, however, I find myself wincing when he recounts these stories.

"Well," I sometimes say, "what are they going to do?"

The answer, at least according to a recent article in the New York Times, is rather bleak. Employment rates for college graduates have declined steeply in the last two years, and perhaps even more disheartening, those who find jobs are more likely to be steaming lattes or walking dogs than doing anything even peripherally related to their college curriculum. While the scale and severity of this post-graduation letdown may be an unavoidable consequence of an awful recession, I do wonder if all those lofty institutions of higher learning, with their noble-sounding mission statements and soft-focused brochure photos of campus greens, may be glossing over the serious, at-times-crippling obstacles a B.A. holder must overcome to achieve professional and financial stability. I'm not asking if a college education has inherent value, if it makes students more thoughtful, more informed, more enlightened and critical-minded human beings. These are all interesting questions that don't pay the rent. What I'm asking is far more banal and far more pressing. What I'm asking is: Why do even the best colleges fail so often at preparing kids for the world?

When I earned my diploma from the University of Virginia in the spring of 2000, it never occurred to me before my senior year to worry too seriously about my post-graduation prospects. Indeed, most of my professors, advisors and mentors reinforced this complacency. I was smart, they told me. I'd spent four years at a rigorous institution honing my writing, research and critical-thinking skills. I'd written an impressive senior thesis, gathered recommendations from professors, completed summer internships in various journalistic endeavors. They had no doubt at all that I would land on my feet. And I did (kind of), about a decade after graduating.

In the interim, I floundered. I worked as a restaurant hostess and tutored English-as-a-second-language without a formal work visa. I mooched off friends and boyfriends and slept on couches. One dreary night in San Francisco, I went on an interview to tend bar at a strip club, but left demoralized when I realized I'd have to walk around in stilettos. I went back to school to complete the pre-medical requirements I'd shunned the first time through, then, a week into physics, I applied to nursing school, then withdrew from that program after a month when I realized nursing would be an environment where my habit of spacing out might actually kill someone. I landed a $12-an-hour job as a paralegal at an asbestos-related litigation firm. I got an MFA in fiction.

Depending on how you look at it, I either spent a long time finding myself, or wasted seven years. And while all these efforts hardly add up to a tragedy (largely because I had the luxury of supportive parents willing to supplement my income for a time), I do have to admit feeling disillusioned as I moved from one gig to another, feeling as though my undergraduate education, far from preparing me for any kind of meaningful and remunerative work, had in some ways deprepared me, nurturing my natural strengths and predilections -- writing, reading, analysis -- and sweeping my weaknesses in organization, pragmatic problem-solving, decision-making under the proverbial rug.

Of course, there are certainly plenty of B.A. holders out there who, wielding the magic combination of competency, credentials and luck, are able to land themselves a respectable, entry-level job that requires neither name tag nor apron. But for every person I know who parlayed a degree in English or anthropology into a career-track gig, I know two others who weren't so lucky, who, in that awful, post-college year or two or three or four, unemployed and uninsured and uncommitted to any particular field, racked up credit card debt or got married to the wrong person or went to law school for no particular reason or made one of a dozen other time- and money-wasting mistakes.

And the common thread in all these stories seems to be how surprised these graduates were by their utter unemployability, a feeling of having been misled into complacency, issued reassurances about how the pedigree or prestige of the institution they'd attended would save them. This narrative holds true whether their course of study was humanities or social sciences. My baby sitter, for example, who earned a degree in psychology from a Big Ten university, now makes $15 an hour watching my kids.

"I was not the most serious student," she admits. "But I do wonder, why was I allowed to decide on a major without ever sitting down with my advisor and talking about what I might do with that major after graduating? I mean, I had to write out a plan for how I'd fit all my required courses into my schedule, but no one seemed to care if I had a plan once I left there. I graduated not knowing how to use Excel, write out a business plan, do basic accounting. With room and board and tuition, my time there cost $120,000."

I asked Sarah Isham, the director of career services of the College of Arts and Sciences at my alma mater about this discrepancy between curriculum and career planning, and she repeats the same reassurances I heard 10 years ago: "What we do is help students see how the patterns and themes of their interests, skills and values, might relate to particular arenas. We do offer a few self-assessment tests, as well as many other resources to help them do this."

When I ask how well the current services are working -- that is, how may recent graduates are finding jobs, real jobs that require a degree -- she can only say that, "The College of Arts and Sciences does not collect statistics on post-graduation plans. I could not give you any idea of where these students are going or what they are doing. Regrettably, it's not something in place at this time."

I went on to ask her how the college's curriculum was adapting to meet the demands of the recession and the realities of the job market, and she directed me to a dean who asked not to be identified, and who expressed, in no uncertain terms, how tired he was of articles like mine that question the rationale, rigor or usefulness of a liberal arts education. He insisted that while he had no suggestions regarding how a 22-year-old should weather a recession, the university was achieving its goal of creating citizens of the world.

When I asked him how a 22-year-old with no job, no income, no health insurance and, in some cases, six figures of college debt to pay off is supposed to be a citizen of the world, he said he had no comment, that he was the wrong person to talk to, and he directed me to another dean, who was also unable to comment.

The chilliness of this response was a bit disheartening, but not terribly surprising. When I was an undergrad, it seemed whenever I mentioned my job-search anxieties, my professors and advisors would get a glassy look in their eyes and mutter something about the career center. Their gazes would drift toward their bookshelves or a folder of ungraded papers. And at the time, I could hardly blame them. These were people who'd published dissertations on Freud, written definitive volumes on Virginia Woolf. The language of real-world career preparation was a language they simply didn't speak.

And if they did say anything at all, it was usually a reiteration of the typical liberal arts defense, that graduating with a humanities degree, I could do anything: I could go on to earn a master's or a law degree or become an editor or a teacher. I could go into journalism or nonprofit work, apply to medical school or the foreign service. I could write books or learn to illustrate or bind them. I could start my own business, work as a consultant, get a job editing pamphlets for an alumni association or raise money for public radio. The possibilities were literally limitless. It was a like being 6 years old again and trying to decide if I'd become an astronaut or a ballerina. The advantage to a humanities degree, one professor insisted, was its versatility. In retrospect, though, I wonder if perhaps this was part of the problem, as well; freedom can promote growth, but it can also cause paralysis. Faced with limitless possibilities, a certain number of people will just stand still.

"So let me ask you something," my husband says, my wonderfully incisive husband who will let me get away with only so much bitterness. "If your school had forced you to declare a career plan or take an accounting class or study Web programming instead of contemporary lit, how would you have felt about it at the time, without the benefit of hindsight?"

It's a good question, and the answer is, I probably would have transferred.

There were courses I took in college, courses in Renaissance literature and the anthropology of social progress and international relations of the Middle East and, of course, writing, that will, in all likelihood, never earn me a steady paycheck or a 401K, but which I would not trade for anything; there were lectures on Shakespeare and Twain and Joyce that I still remember, that I've dreamt about and that define my sensibility as a writer and a reader and a human being. Even now, knowing the lost years that followed, I still wouldn't trade them in.

A new Harvard study suggests that it's not an abandonment of the college curriculum that's needed, but a re-envisioning and better preparation. The study compares the U.S. system unfavorably to its European counterparts where students begin thinking about what sort of career they'll pursue and the sort of preparation they'll need for it in middle school. Could that be the answer?

At the end of my interview with Sarah Isham, she asks me if I might come back to Charlottesville to participate in an alumni career panel. "We always have a lot of students interested in media and writing and the arts. It would be wonderful," she says "to have you come and talk to them." She asks me this, and I can't help but laugh.

"I don't think I'd be much of a role model," I say. "I don't have what you'd call a high-powered career. I mostly do freelance work. Adjunct teaching. That sort of thing."

"Oh, that's fine," she insists. "Our students will love that. So many of them are terrified of sitting in a cubicle all day."

They should be so lucky, I think. But I would never say that -- not to them and not to my own students. They'll have plenty of time later to find out just what a degree is and isn't good for. Right now, they're in those four extraordinary, exceptional years where ideas matter; and there's not a thing I'd do to change that.

By Kim Brooks

Kim Brooks' first novel, The Houseguest, is now available from Counterpoint Press. Her memoir, Small Animals, is forthcoming with Flatiron/Macmillan, and her website is can follow her on Twitter @KA_Brooks.

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