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How It Sounds
July 25, 2012 - 9:37pm

Sometimes it’s the offhand comments that tell you the most.

In a conversation a few days ago, some thoughtful faculty noted in passing that the state’s constant drumbeat about job placement and STEM fields -- two different things, btw -- was becoming a factor in faculty morale in the humanities and social sciences. They heard every invocation of college-as-personnel-office as an attack on what they do, and as a harbinger of even-more-diminished resources to come.

I couldn’t blame them, really.  Budgets are tight, new state and federal money (when it exists) tends to go to more favored areas, and it’s not hard to read the public mood.  

As someone who has attended more Employer Advisory Boards than is probably healthy, I can attest that much of the “practical-versus-pure” dichotomy is overdrawn, if not simply false.  But the political rhetoric is pushing in one direction, so some folks -- understandably, if unhelpfully -- are compelled to push back in the other, thereby implying that the terms of the discussion are correct.  If I could, I’d love to convene some much larger Employer Advisory Boards and invite both politicians and the English department to observe silently.

Even in our most baldly vocational programs, employers consistently make it clear that their greatest need, and disappointment, with new employees is with the soft skills.  Even in technical areas, we hear consistently that anyone who wants to move above the entry level needs to have good communication skills, good workplace savvy, and a basic sense of numeracy.  The employers are still willing to do a certain amount of training on their own specific systems; what they want from us is people are who have the skills to be trainable and employable.

In their more thoughtful moments, I’ve heard politicians acknowledge that.  But in the heat of legislative battle, such counterintuitive truths don’t get heard.  Instead, we fall into stereotypes of “ivory tower” academics not preparing students for the “real world,” and we believe somehow that if we could just reduce education to training, everything would be fine.

It doesn’t work like that.  It has never worked like that.

The relevant question is not whether we should fund, say, chemistry, as opposed to sociology.  (Last week, the Freakonomics folks -- whose readers tend to have economics backgrounds -- did a poll asking which social sciences should die.  Shockingly, economists didn’t choose economics.)  That’s the wrong question at the systemic level.  (It can be the right question on individual campuses, but that’s another issue.)  Both majors can produce thoughtful people who have something to offer, and both can produce drones.  And especially in the first two years of college, it makes sense for students to have at least some exposure to each discipline, or at least to similar ones.

At its core, some very smart economists say, the jobs crisis is not primarily about having too many sociology majors.  It’s about having a too-skewed distribution of wealth, a too-powerful financial services industry, and too many people making life choices that any competent sociologist could tell you don’t lead to good outcomes.  I’m much more worried about college dropouts -- especially those with heavy loan payments -- than I am about graduates with degrees in comparative literature.  

Historically, the liberal arts grads have struggled somewhat to get the first real job, but have done quite well for themselves once they’ve made their way in.  They just need that first foot in the door, which is a tall order during a nasty recession.  But let’s not confuse the effects of the nasty recession with the value of the liberal arts education.  And even more importantly, let’s not make the mistake of purging the “gen ed” courses from the technical and vocational fields.  Technical firms need managers too, and those managers will need to be able to understand people, write and speak well, and make decisions with limited and flawed information.  

Attacking the humanists is not going to solve the recession.  It simply is not.  If the employers with whom I speak are to be believed, that’s the last thing we should do.  Short-term training is, at best, a short-term solution; if we really want long-term prosperity, we need people who bring the whole package.  That means recognizing English and history and, yes, sociology as integral parts of our mission.  The answer isn’t to hit back with the virtues of irrelevance; it’s to affirm the relevance of the educational core.  We need people who know enough to listen to the offhand remarks.

 

 

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