Columns / Discourse / May 2, 2012

Voice of Reason: In praise of unemployable majors

“When students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions — specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students.”

Rare is the essay that I come across where the first thing I do after reading it is to immediately read it again. William Deresiewicz’s “The Disadvantage of an Elite Education,” from which the above excerpt comes, is one of them. (The essay is available at I strongly encourage you to read it in full).

Deresiewicz sees rust collecting on the crown jewels of American higher education. He looks at the elite American universities and sees plenty of students who are being trained to become doctors, lawyers and businesspeople. He sees very few being trained how to think.

Since the beginning of the idea of higher education, namely, at Plato’s Academy in Athens, it was designed to provide students the tools to lead meaningful lives. Students did not go to the Academy to learn how to build better agoras, but to learn how to be better people.

We’ve come a long way from Athens. Somewhere along the way it seems we’ve decided that spending society’s resources on building better people is a waste. No one ever objects to training more dentists or electricians or nurses, but dare to suggest we’re not graduating enough history or English majors and be prepared for a barrage of criticism. The cult of practicality that has enveloped our society does not tolerate dissent lightly.

Look at what the college admissions race has turned into. Those high school students who harbor dreams of academic glory and eternal bragging rights have to sell their souls years before they even begin filling out their applications with AP courses they don’t care about, community service fulfilled for reasons that have little to do with the community and essays that are supposed to reflect their inner person that have been polished down to the last comma by professionals (for a small fee, naturally).

If you want to get in, you better have a deep and abiding passion for something, whether Irish dancing or paleontology. Those 18 year-olds who haven’t discovered their purpose in life need not apply.

Once admitted to the Ivory Tower’s most rarefied confines, what then? Well, the process starts over, of course. Wouldn’t want to let that GPA slip or you’ll never qualify for that prestigious internship!

Now, the Ivy Leagues are certainly not like every other college, but their problems affect the rest of us disproportionately. For one thing, Ivy League grads are vastly overrepresented in the highest and most influential sections of academia, business and government, so what happens to their graduates eventually affects all of us.

For another, as much as many other institutions would deny it, what they want more than anything else is to be just like the Ivies. What they do will eventually spill over widely across academia.

Though the Ivy League is probably not at fault for this, the idea that college is a glorified vocational school has penetrated deeply into our societal discourse. Start any discussion about the state of higher education and you’ll trigger a wave of criticism at the way things are being done right now.

Why are so many young graduates out in the street, unemployed and weighed down under massive debts? Many will respond it’s because they all majored in philosophy or something else similarly “useless.” (Interesting that philosophy was the only subject considered worthy to be taught at the first university. Now it has become the symbol of impracticality and unemployability.)

What most people think that they should have done is studied science or engineering, because that’s where the jobs are (though rarely do actual scientists or engineers say this, in my experience). This response is disingenuous, because this advice is only given to those silly liberal arts majors. Never are the vocational majors, specifically those majoring in business, told they should really consider engineering so that they can get a practical education.

The youth of America, contrary to practical belief, responded. The most popular major is far and away business, with communications, nursing and education also making appearances in the top ten. This trend has only accelerated since the financial crisis hit. The stereotypical privately educated theatre majors are becoming harder to find.

There is a curious tension in how people ask us about how college is going when we go back home. After explaining where Knox is, you will be asked for your major and then what you’re planning on doing with that. No one will ever ask you if you have developed a meaningful purpose in life. The very idea sounds hopelessly corny.

Respond with an “impractical” major and be prepared for a snort of derision, coupled with the question, spoken or not, “What are you going to do with that?” Though if you ask them another time if money is the key to happiness in life, they will almost definitely respond that it’s not. The cognitive dissonance in play here is astounding.

What has this embrace of practicality brought us? A generation that can’t write, can’t read and above all can’t think. A survey of employers conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 60 percent aren’t happy with the quality of the graduates they’re getting.

Richard Arum and Josipa Rosika’s book “Academically Adrift” showed that up to a third of college students showed no noticeable gains in critical thinking skills after graduating from college. The smallest gains, not shockingly, were found among the “practical” majors, such as communications and business. Liberal arts and natural science students showed gains far above their practically minded peers.

“You can’t have a democratic society when the elite — the college-educated kids — don’t have these abilities to think critically,” Arum said about the findings.

Making college into a vocational school should have brought us a generation better qualified than any before it to enter the workforce. It brought us no such thing.

And what about Knox? Our motto is veritas, “truth,” but there are certainly those among us far too occupied finding the little truths and not interested in truth in general. I’ve met a lot of people at Knox who have come here for a lot of different reasons, but no one has ever said that they’ve come here looking to learn what the good life is and how to live it.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t many students who are there just for that, but it does suggest that most are here for the future career prospects a Knox degree brings and nothing more (in an intellectual sense, at least).

We nominally come here looking for a liberal arts education, but look how many SMC rats never want to leave the building, how many Creative Writing majors recoil from the very thought of the scientific method and how many Classics majors who could care less about anything that has happened since the birth of Christ. How often have we spent time wondering what we can really know in life, what true beauty is or what constitutes the good life?

The research of Alexander W. Astin has shown that over 70 percent of American students now consider their primary goal in college to become financially well off, whereas in the ‘60s as many as 80 percent said that developing a meaningful life philosophy was more important. Is there any reason to believe that ratio is much different on this campus? Is there any reason to believe that this campus is different?

I might be being a bit hard on Knox. We’re still far better off than our friends elsewhere. There are a good number of students who really are able to pursue their passion here and find out what will make their life meaningful and professors who understand there is life beyond their incredibly minute specialty. There’s also, of course, First-Year Preceptorial, which no matter how unevenly taught, was conceived in exactly the right spirit.

We’ve been able to resist the temptation to establish purely vocational majors. Even the narrower disciplines like business and journalism that we offer are still only minors on purpose, which I find laudable.

Take heart, Knox. Though you will probably never earn as much as your Ivy educated cohort, your chances of being happy with what you are making are, in my eyes, much greater.

I’d like to close on another quote I’ve always particularly liked, from Allan Bloom, a noted defender of the old spirit of the university.

“Students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But … they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.”

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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