Liberal arts, the job market, and Pete Seeger
This was the first week of the new semester at Sacramento State, and my courses seem to have gotten off to a good start. Unlike last semester, I didn’t have students sitting on the floor, telling me that they couldn’t find a spot in the classes they need to graduate. I don’t know to what extent that’s due to the recent modest budget increases for public higher education, but for now at least everyone has a chair.
That makes this a good time to consider the latest flurry of fretting over the employment prospects of liberal arts majors. Yesterday President Obama stoked the job market anxieties of art history majors. Such anxieties are pervasive, and many students these days decide to major in business, nursing, and other professional degree programs in part because they assume those degrees promise more income than a liberal arts degree. And that’s no surprise, given the messages conveyed by many administrators and faculty, as well as our culture as a whole. Especially in tough economic times, students constantly hear that they should choose a “practical” major.
There’s nothing wrong with figuring out how you’re going to pay the bills, but the assumption that liberal arts majors will end up on the streets has been repeatedly debunked, most recently in a report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment. The report confirms other recent studies showing that liberal arts majors actually have higher long-term job earnings than those with professional degrees.
Median Annual Earnings by Age-Group and Undergraduate Major (2010-11)
Humanities and social science majors do best when they go on to graduate school, and if you only consider those who don’t get a graduate degree, humanities and social science majors are at the bottom of the income scale, but by less than most people assume:
Median earnings for graduates with only baccalaureate degrees (2010-11)
Employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate and think critically . . . all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.
And in the end, of course, as Jordan Weissmann argues, “Money Is a Terrible Way to Measure the Value of a College Major.” Students should expect much more from college than a high salary. Among other things, they should expect to learn how to think critically, write clearly, and speak publicly about issues that matter to them — regardless of their major.
All of this gives me one more reason to take a break and listen to some of the songs of Pete Seeger, who died this week at the age of 94. One of the best in this context is the 1962 Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes,” which Seeger made famous, and which my parents used to sing with my sister and I in the car whenever we drove past Daly City on the way to the beach. (Today people might know it from the opening segment of the television series “Weeds.”) Like most people, I thought it was just about suburban conformity, and the cheerful tune might have motivated Tom Lehrer to say (according to Christopher Hitchens) that it was “the most sanctimonious song ever written.” But listening to it again now, it seems broader than that, more chilling, even downright Orwellian:
And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same.
Nowadays a lot more people go to college than when the song was written, and maybe some students see the pressure to conform less in the suburbs than in the universities.