Who needs the liberal arts? At a time when unemployment in the US is nearing ten percent, the last thing we need is more English majors, more creative-humanities-philosophizing-artsy types, or so Governor Rick Scott of Florida said in a Monday radio interview with a right-wing radio host. Students need education “in areas where they can get jobs,” in the so-called STEM disciplines because, says Scott:
“You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”
In another interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Scott spoke about shifting funding at Florida’s public universities to the STEM areas, at the expense of academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Again, he justified his proposal on the basis that students in STEM fields get jobs after graduating:
“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.”
“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
As a professor of Classics — ancient Greek and Latin — at a small, urban college whose students are often the first in their families to go to college and who are already working just to stay in college, Governor Scott’s statements are not surprising to me. Latin, ancient Greek and Roman law aren’t exactly the sorts of classes students at my college are inclined to take. I’m overjoyed if one of the graduating seniors in a given year is majoring in Classics (some years, none are). I have enrollment “targets” to meet. While I do hear of a handful of job openings for Latin teachers, there are few and far between. Nothing says “liberal arts,” “not practical” and even “useless in the real world” than Classics, especially compared to programs in IT, criminal justice and nursing.
It’s hard to be idealistic in such a setting, and yet one must be. Mother Jones points out that plenty of “notable Americans” (Carly Fiorina, Clarence Thomas, Diane Sawyer, Mario Cuomo and Sally Ride) have majored in decidedly non-STEM-ish disciplines and that plenty of recent research reveals that what you major in is not as much a predictor of long-term income as often presumed.
Even more, study in the liberal arts has long, and some might say infamously, been associated with notions such as “the unexamined life is not worth living” and “questioning authority.” A liberal arts education trains students to ask status-quo shaking questions like “why is it that the winners of wars and conquests tend to write history?” and “if slaves possibly comprised as much as 25 to 40 percent of the population of ancient Rome, why do we know so little about their lives?”
Says Mother Jones:
As opposed to conservative-friendly disciplines like economics and business management, liberal arts produce more culturally aware and progressive citizens, inclined to challenge ossified social conventions and injustices. Eliminate cultural and social sciences from public colleges, and you’ll ultimately produce fewer community organizers, poets, and critics; you’ll probably churn out more Rotarians, Junior Leaguers, and Republican donors.
Of course we need accountants, IT specialists and engineers. But in this age when we value innovation and creating new technologies and new answers to old problem, don’t we need just as much to teach students to “think differently”?
Wasn’t it a calligraphy course that Steve Jobs audited at a certain liberal arts college in Oregon that was one of the inspirations behind the Macintosh’s graphic interface?
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