The Value of a Liberal Arts education

Well, I’ll tell you what it’s not.  It’s not wasting two hours of the time of 15 or so faculty members to discuss such matters as whether “Native American Literature” meets a US Diversity Co-requisite requirement.  Or debating the grammar on a proposal to likewise have my “Gender & Politics” class qualify for that co-req.  There’s two hours of my life I’ll never have back. Today, I said that, on principle, I would not discuss any of the application of a course which so obviously meets the diversity requirement by its title alone.  So, that’s not the value of a liberal arts education.  What is?

You may have heard that the governor of Florida Rick Scott (a man elected governor despite the fact his company had defrauded Medicare and US taxpayers out of millions of dollars) wants to essentially defund liberal arts in Florida public universities.  Like any state, Florida should be graduating more engineers.  And they surely do have all the actual Anthropologists they need.  However, they may still benefit very much from producing more anthropology majors (its not like most of them go on to be actual anthropologists) as social sciences are excellent for teaching critical thinking skills, which, obviously, are useful in most any job and discipline.

In fact, I’ve been reading a really thought-provoking book, Academically Adrift for a faculty book club.  The authors argue that we are basically failing at teaching our students critical thinking.  That said, some parts of universities fail more than others.  Yglesias recently re-produced a chart looking at this by major:

Not bad, I’d say.  I’ve got a strong suspicion that if you pulled out the humanities from the social sciences, the latter would score even higher.  And as for business, you can see why I don’t have a lot of respect for undergraduate business majors (besides the fact that students think this is just some path to riches).

Of course, when I’m wasting any  time on whether African-American film fulfills a diversity requirement (a trained chimpanzee could know the answer is “yes”) I’m not doing anything to help my students gain critical thinking skills.  Then again, I’d probably just spend the time blogging.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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