In a comment to yesterday’s post about the liberal arts, Eric Lund makes a good point:
The best argument I have ever heard for doing scholarship in literature and other such fields is that some people find it fun.
I single this out as a good point not because I want to sneer at the literary disciplines, but because with a little re-wording, this could apply to just about anything. The best reason for studying any academic subject is because it’s fun.
This is, as I alluded to in a later comment of my own, a significant source of tension for Delbanco’s book and a lot of other arguments about liberal education and “critical thinking skills” and the like. In the historical portion of the book, Delbanco makes it fairly clear that the idealized college system he writes about was designed to serve the interests of people who were already comfortable, who could afford to devote a few years to a mix of abstract study and partying. In the beginning, they were all pointedly aimed at theological sorts of instruction, but eventually the range of subjects expanded, but it was never a vehicle for practical training.
The tension here comes because we’re no longer really comfortable with the idea of an entire tier of academic institutions that are constructed solely to serve the children of the upper classes. So everybody agrees that we need to make these sorts of institutions open to a broader range of people– giving financial aid to allow students from poor families to come, providing some form of affirmative action to aid students from groups that have historically been discriminated against, etc.. These are goals that I support– we should do what we can to let higher education open doors for people. I had a great conversation at my Williams reunion back in June with a couple of classmates whose path to Williams was far more improbable than my own (while I grew up out in the sticks, we were never poor, and both of my parents have college degrees). Those stories were a great testament to the opportunity that we (a pronoun that here stands for the elite college world where I operate) can provide.
At the same time, though, opening the doors to students of lower socioeconomic status will necessarily bring a lot of the pressures that faculty on the other side of campus chafe under– the (perceived) need to learn something practical or at least marketable, a major that will get them a good job after graduation. Even if you make college itself affordable through generous financial aid packages, these students are going to feel real and immediate pressure to start earning money. They don’t have family money to support them for a few idle years, and they don’t have the sort of social connections that can get them a guaranteed job, so their future prospects are, to a greater degree than many other students, highly dependent on the specific credential they acquire while in college.
The situation is, if anything, probably slightly worse for the students in between– they have slightly greater financial and social resources to draw on, but also tend to leave college with a great deal of student loan debt…
So, we have a responsibility to broaden access, a responsibility that for various reasons tends to be most keenly felt by faculty on the arts and literature side of campus. But the process of broadening that access necessarily brings in students who feel pressured to study “practical” subjects, pushing them away from those same artistic and literary subjects. And as costs go up, those financial concerns spread beyond the student population to the voting population in general, leading to the current drive for trying to measure colleges by financial outcomes and the like, standards that are really unfriendly to the arts and literature branch of academia.
This is the origin of a lot of the awkward attempts to re-brand arts and literature majors as teaching “critical thinking skills” and the like. The more clumsy and desperate of these get really annoying in more or less the same way as the “ask the really important questions” stuff I talked about in yesterday’s post, phrasing things in a way that seems to exclude the sciences from the disciplines that teach “critical thinking.”
To a large extent, these are aping the rhetoric that’s long been used by slightly impractical scientific fields like my own discipline of physics. We don’t directly feed into an obvious right-out-of-college career track– for reasons that I think are basically a historical accident, there aren’t many lab tech jobs for people with undergraduate degrees in physics, so the main options open to physics majors who want to work right after graduation are basically high school teaching (while working to get the necessary education credentials), competing for entry-level engineering sorts of jobs, or going into finance. As a result, we spend a lot of time touting the versatility of the physics major. I’ve had many conversations with parents of students majoring in physics that basically amount to them asking for reassurance that their son or daughter will be employable. So we talk up the fact that physics majors go on to medical school and law school and engineering school and can do basically anything that they want to. We’re the English majors of the hard sciences.
(Math is the Art History of the hard sciences in this analogy.)
The problem is that we sometimes mistake the real meaning of this line of argument, in the same way that our colleagues across campus are mistaking the meaning of the “critical thinking skills” argument. Talking up the versatility of physics and the diverse career trajectories of our majors is not really a direct and positive argument for choosing physics as a major, it’s an indirect and negative one. What we’re really saying is “Go ahead and study physics because it’s fun, and don’t worry that you’re screwing yourself over down the line. You’ll still have most of the options you would have had if you chose a less fun but more ‘practical’ major.”
That’s ultimately what the “critical thinking skills” argument boils down to as well. Because, really, if you put any effort at all into any major at all, you’ll pick up the ability to think critically. One of the better bits from Delbanco’s book and talk was a quote from a long-ago British academic who told entering students (paraphrasing because I don’t have the (paper) book with me) that “Your college experience will teach you nothing of value save only this: you will learn to recognize when a man is talking rot.” That’s a skill that, as he points out, comes from just spending a lot of time reading and thinking in the company of others who are also reading and thinking. It’s not tied to any specific major, though the weaker and more annoying parts of the book mostly consist of attempts at rhetorical jiu-jitsu to turn this into a claim that studying “impractical” subjects is the best or only way to acquire the ability to detect bullshit.
In the end, though, the argument comes down to the same thing we’ve really been saying about physics: “Go ahead and study this because it’s fun, and don’t worry that you’re screwing yourself over down the line. You’ll still have most of the options you would have had if you chose a less fun but more ‘practical’ major.”
This is absolutely true, but also a hard sell to students and families staring down the barrel of $200,000 in college loan debt. It requires a kind of leap of faith, a sort of optimistic outlook that things will work out all right three or four years down the line, even if it’s not immediately obvious how. That’s a lot easier to swing if you already have family resources to fall back on if it takes longer than expected for the good things to come around.
(This is not to say that there’s no concrete benefit to a liberal education. I very much agree with the “soft skills” argument advanced by Matt “Dean Dad” Reed. But that’s a benefit of taking a wider range of subjects, not a benefit of majoring in any particular subject– at a school with any kind of sensible general education/ distribution requirements, it’s basically incidental to the choice of major. You’ll get the “soft skills” the same way you get the social connections an elite liberal arts school provides– just from being there and paying attention.)
So, like I said, there’s a tension to this whole business that comes out of socioeconomic class issues. Liberal-arts-school academics like Delbanco and myself want to make the sort of education we provide available to students from a wide range of backgrounds. But increasing access and availability necessarily brings with it increased pressure for “practical” instruction and results, and a kind of careerism and credentialism that makes academics twitchy. The financial stakes are too high for a lot of the students and families we serve for it to be any other way.
The only way to get rid of that pressure is to lower those stakes. The easiest way to do that is fundamentally regressive– to go back to serving primarily the upper classes (some would claim we’ve never really stopped doing this…), who already have the necessary resources to not be overly concerned about the practicality of their college major. That’s not a very appealing path, for a lot of reasons.
The other route is to lower the stakes by making those resources available to a wider range of people. If getting a good job right out of college isn’t an all-or-nothing sort of proposition, then it’s a lot easier to take the leap toward studying something because it’s fun. Which is, ultimately a call toward a particular political posture– improving the social safety net, providing broader access to health care, etc. Basically, socialism. Of course, most college faculty at least lean in a squishy socialist direction already, so it’s not an especially hard sell on campus…
There’s a sense in which we’re currently poised between these two options. On the one hand, as numerous commentators are eager to tell you, economic inequality is increasing and the middle class is getting squeezed. Wealth is getting more concentrated, and it may be that the rich will end up being the only ones who can afford to buy what we’re selling. Which might take the practicality argument off the table in the least appealing way possible. And the current political climate is so toxic that it’s hard to see a way past it.
On the other hand, though, it was interesting to catch up on the DVR’ed episodes of the Daily Show and catch this interview with Robert Reich:
While Reich lays out the evidence for inequality really well, I found it interesting that he’s so fundamentally optimistic about the whole situation. Obviously, I find his view rather congenial– I have, after all, argued that we’ll be saved by the rise of The Culture. I really hope he’s right.