Humanities: A Waste of Money?

With the focus of higher education on jobs and income more than ever, it is a wonder why the liberal arts and the humanities are worth the investment. A history or philosophy class can’t deliver skills that the workforce requires, right?

A very small fraction of graduates will qualify for an MBA, law school, or medical school. A small fraction of undergraduate students in the sciences complete a biology or chemistry degree. More jobs simply require a bachelor’s degree as evidence of some set of competencies – from clerks to kitchen staff. James McGrath makes a point of this:

I wonder whether the question “Will this be on the final exam?”, and the sense many of today’s students have that core curriculum and general education courses are irrelevant to their chosen vocation, are not connected. Both reflect the belief that the future will follow a predictable path, and that all students need to do is gather up the answers now and then have them ready for the moments when they are needed.

I am finding the “final exam” rhetoric no more prevalent than in recent talks about higher education ratings and jobs. The final exam is employment and the outcome of employment is a return on investment in that degree. In the end, getting a job and money are why we go to school. This would mean that religious studies is superfluous unless wrapped in, say, an international business degree. Philosophy is pointless unless it might help you in, say, debating in a political or law career. Music, art, and literature? These are clearly wastes of money and time.

Once again liberal arts and humanities are on the chopping block in a revolving door of utilitarianism.

Not everyone in the business world would agree that a liberal education is superfluous. Learning how to think and acquire a diverse plasticity of the mind is valuable.

The people who succeed in more expensive labor markets like the U.S. will be those who can think creatively and generate the ideas that will propel economic growth. Such skills, (Vivek Ranadive, CEO of Palo Alto tech firm Tibco Software) said, are best fostered in a traditional liberal-arts environment.

Ironic how we keep coming back to a liberal education and the liberal arts to “reform” higher education when education takes a utilitarian route.

While outsourcing skills learned in a liberal arts education to the MOOC environment is debatable at best, dumping what seem to be “useless” courses will prove a bad investment in the economy and in society once again. Re-envisioning models for teaching students to think is always important. Cutting programs based on arbitrary return on investment data points has no long-term gains.

10 thoughts on “Humanities: A Waste of Money?

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  4. Pingback: Is Higher Education Too Snobbish? | Mind Squirrels

  5. I’ve been thinking about the value of humanities lately, too. The “what will it get me?” question drowns out the openness that can lead to the kind of plasticity we really need. I’m reminded of Epictetus’s “Everything has two handles”–being focused on goals is good, but if you pick up that goal with the other handle, you’re liable to be stuck with an inability to imagine how things might be different. I’m in the English field, which is a dwindling breed at the moment. I like Adam Gopnik’s take on it though–instead of trying to justify English in terms of use value, he says that we have, and will always have, at least some kind of English major because people just don’t want to live in a world where absolutely everything is use-value-driven.
    Anyway, thanks for your post. I wrote about the decline of the English major here, if you’d like to see it:

    • Thanks for the observations. It truly is a revolving door from utility to having people able to think and communicate clearly. But again, business largely dictates these values. Education is not the leader of change but largely a symptom of it. Is it possible to flip the equation? I would like to see smaller example where that is happening because surely it must be!

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