Readers discuss what kind of college education is most valuable.
To the Editor:
Re “The Imperiled Promise of College” (column, April 29):
While Frank Bruni is certainly right that college is too expensive and that we need more people to study science, math and engineering, I disagree with him about the lack of value of a humanities degree. Perhaps as a history professor at a liberal arts college, I am being defensive. But while a specific degree in communications or accounting may land you a well-paying job sooner, a liberal arts degree better equips students for the ever-changing job market they face.
Many of the jobs today are in fields that hadn’t been invented 10 years ago. Most workers today will change not just jobs but careers several times in their lives. What does one need to succeed, even flourish, in such a market? The ability to think creatively, read critically, construct effective arguments using persuasive evidence, write clearly, remain flexible and look at issues with an open mind. These are skills taught best in broad liberal arts settings—even in majors like philosophy or zoology.
One can still go on from a liberal arts base to become a teacher, a programmer or any other specialized professional, and probably be more effective thanks to those skills. And a liberal arts degree equips students with skills needed to be active world citizens, something important even for baristas.
So yes, let’s find ways to help more students gain access to higher education. But let’s not confuse first jobs with satisfying careers, or dumb down nursing, accounting or other fields by assuming that training, rather than education, is the best way to go.
Hartford, May 1, 2012
The writer is a history professor at Trinity College.
Professor Greenberg does not go far enough in correcting Frank Bruni’s dismissal of the humanities. That is because she, no less than he, is focused on equipping students for an “ever-changing job market” and “satisfying careers.”
Everywhere, at every level of the American educational system, students have been cut off—or have cut themselves off—from the best that those who have come before them have thought and created. In recent classes at my own university, not one of my undergraduate or graduate students had any idea of who Joseph Haydn was. And only one graduate student, and she of a certain age, had ever heard of Ingmar Bergman.
What the obsession with keeping one’s eyes on the prize has led to, I fear, is a certain coldness of heart. A well-regarded study at the University of Michigan found that empathy among students was much lower than 20 or 30 years ago. Is anyone surprised?
In short, the lack of beauty in one’s life has consequences: the coarsening of one’s sensibility, the shrinking of imagination and the loss of feeling for what might be possible in the world. That is why, at bottom, one studies the humanities.
Brookline, Mass., May 2, 2012
The writer is director of the creative writing program at Boston University.
Ms. Greenberg’s response to Frank Bruni’s column points up a false dilemma. Few would dispute the need for the “ability to think creatively, read critically, construct effective arguments” and so on. There is no conflict between those abilities and the ability to think abstractly in a quantitative manner, to draw meaningful inferences from data, and to understand scientific concepts and methods. To graduate without a basic facility in quantitative subjects is not merely a competitive disadvantage in the labor market—it is a sign of an incomplete education.
Ms. Greenberg’s dismissal of quantitative subjects as “training” is a disservice to students who should avail themselves of the opportunity to take mathematics, science (and, yes, engineering) classes in addition to the liberal arts—not just to enhance their own market value, but also to become well-rounded and educated members of society.
Houston, May 2, 2012
As an American studies major, I have put my faith (and $40,000 a year) in the hope that the skills developed by my liberal arts education are as valuable as Ms. Greenberg suggests. But colleges need to do a better job preparing students for life after graduation.
I think there is an obvious solution: create a greater role for internships within the liberal arts curriculum. Internships foster vital connections between coursework and career aspirations, giving students exposure to the professional world.
Let’s make it easier for students to get credit and funding for these experiences. Let’s make internships a requirement for graduation. Let’s force the philosophy major to apply her critical thinking skills to something other than an analytic essay.
Poughkeepsie, N.Y., May 2, 2012
The writer is a junior at Vassar College.
I entered college with a calculator in each pocket, dead set on becoming a research mathematician. I was the type of student that everyone agrees we need more of, dripping with the technical skills that make high-end employers salivate. But that was 10 long years ago.
Last month I officially became a lawyer. How could I? Blame my final semester of college, when, almost at random, I enrolled in a constitutional law course to satisfy my last remaining curricular requirements. I fell in love with it instantly and never again dreamed of a life in mathematics.
At its best, a liberal arts education leads students to unfamiliar disciplines and sets them on unexpected paths. Should society complain that the liberal arts converted a desperately needed math whiz into yet another attorney? Perhaps. But I’m not complaining.
ADAM D. CHANDLER
Burlington, N.C., May 2, 2012
The writer is a 2006 Rhodes scholar and graduate of Yale Law School.
I die a little each time a fellow professor justifies our enterprise by saying, as Professor Greenberg does, that the liberal arts will help you succeed, “even flourish,” in the marketplace. It seems odd to say it’s worthwhile to contemplate Thoreau or Jesus or the French Revolution because doing so will positively affect your bottom line.
Indeed, I think it might not be such a bad idea to warn students that exposure to the liberal arts could make them unfit for the kind of work the marketplace values most highly. As if in compensation, however, humanistic learning may also make them indifferent to the kind of success the marketplace has to offer.
Ashland, Va., May 2, 2012
The writer is a professor of English at Randolph-Macon College.
Some years ago during a routine physical exam, my then-internist, a highly respected partner in a regional clinic, asked me what the history majors at my liberal arts institution did upon graduation. I explained that while a few went on to law or graduate school, most found immediate gainful employment in a wide range of positions in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.
I then asked what his undergraduate major had been at the major research university he had attended. “Philosophy,” he answered, to my utter delight.
GREGORY L. KASTER
St. Peter, Minn., May 2, 2012
The writer is a professor of history at Gustavus Adolphus College.
As someone who chose to study philosophy at both the undergraduate and graduate level, I had to contend through the years with people’s quizzical or even negative reactions. “What good is a philosophy degree?” I would be asked.
My response was always the same: It was good training for a world full of complex ideas, opinions and assumptions, all of which drive decision making on large and small scales.
Having worked for decades now, in nonprofit groups, government and philanthropy, I have encountered a good deal of lazy, sloppy thinking, reflected in bad writing and worse practice. Yes, it is enormously helpful to have technical skills in mathematics, computing and other fields, but without the ability to analyze, understand and critique concepts, we just have a muddle of sloppy commentary, slippery “facts” and the bad outcomes to which they lead us.
I am amused and amazed by those who think technology will be our savior, that those who can use social media with greatest skill will somehow rule the world. Technology like the Internet is meaningless without the ability to imbue it with meaningful content, and the greater ability to figure out which content has value and why. This ability is honed through the kind of rigorous humanities education I was privileged to receive.
Great Neck, N.Y., May 2, 2012
We are wrongly regarding education as a purchase rather than an investment. With a purchase, you have a “product” to show for your money. With an investment, you get paid back over time.
Perhaps rather than looking at this year’s crop of graduates, we should look back from the perspective of 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds who have made a variety of choices. I graduated in 1979 from a liberal arts school during an earlier economic crisis. I ended up working in a bookstore with top graduates from a variety of prestigious universities and liberal arts schools. My bookstore co-workers and I have all gone on to successful professions of their choosing.
If we were measured by the job we held upon graduation, our educations would have been deemed a failure and a waste of money. We must look beyond this moment in time and recognize that very few things pay immediate dividends.
East Orange, N.J., May 2, 2012
The writer is a computer teacher at a charter school that she co-founded.
We need to ask ourselves: Is a liberal arts degree worth it? Absolutely not. A typical college graduate who majored in the humanities is burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and grim job prospects.
However, that is not to say that the knowledge from these classes is useless. For instance, Steve Jobs’s experience in his calligraphy class at Reed College (before dropping out) later propelled him to create the Mac typography.
Rather than listening to lectures, reading textbooks and regurgitating on exams, students should learn by doing—projects, traveling, volunteering. End this notion of a liberal arts degree. Portfolios should rule.
Imagine if we approached learning through debate and tinkering with ideas by bringing back French salons from the 18th century. Imagine if schools were dynamic social engines and the birthplace of the citizen ideal. Only then can we create “active world citizens.”
Woodbury, N.Y., May 2, 2012
The writer is a high school junior who has written a book about education reform.
I admire the work of Frank Bruni, but like Professor Greenberg, I disagree with him on the value of a liberal arts degree. Moreover, I do so as a scientist who sees the damage done to science by the inadequacies in the liberal education of students majoring in the sciences.
The most glaring result is the inability of the majority of the 200 students in my general biochemistry course to write a coherent paragraph. The inability to write clearly reflects an inability to think clearly. Those of us who do science are storytellers of a kind. We put together stories derived from the facts of experimental or theoretical work. Our ability to persuade and to fascinate others, including the general public, depends on our ability to tell the stories. Literature is as important to that skill as the laboratory.
As Ms. Greenberg points out, students should be educated, not simply trained. We can train a robot or a monkey, but we cannot educate one. Our polity and our economy need educated people, not robots or monkeys who will easily become out of date and who are ready prey for demagogues.
PETER C. KAHN
East Brunswick, N.J., May 2, 2012
The writer is a professor of biochemistry at Rutgers University.
The Writer Responds
The letters taken together bring us back to the two main questions about the liberal arts—what are they, and what are they good for?
As Mr. Furrow correctly reminds us, mathematics and the sciences are as important as literature and the arts, and I would include them broadly in “the liberal arts.” The liberal arts offer us “theories of knowledge,” to quote from the International Baccalaureate program, that help us understand and even occupy different points of view. They provide both the tools and the space to reflect more deeply on what gives our lives meaning.
And what are they good for? These letters offer many possible answers. Mr. Chandler’s liberal arts education helped him discover his calling; Mr. Peyser’s led him to challenge the very premise of education as job training.
Briefly, I would say the study of the liberal arts is good for everything and anything, but especially for discovering what you are good for—or raising questions about what anything is good for. Ideally it leads us to more fulfilling careers and more meaningful lives by making us more informed and thoughtful members of our communities, and, as Mr. Epstein reminds us, more compassionate human beings.
Real world engagement, as Ms. Dufresne and Mr. Goyal advocate, is surely not antithetical to this model. Teaching that incorporates real world experience is an important part of the curriculum at many liberal arts colleges.
Acting in the world challenges us to rethink ideas and conclusions drawn from more academic study. My greatest satisfaction as a teacher is seeing my students act on the beliefs and convictions they have formed through their work with me and my colleagues.
None of this is to deny the importance of specialized training, whether through an apprenticeship or course of study. I am simply arguing that the liberal arts—humanities, social and natural sciences, arts and mathematics—help us find what is meaningful to us, and help us pursue it.
Hartford, May 3, 2012