June 02, 2003

Pursue a Liberal Arts Degree and Join the Ranks of the Non-Industrial Proletariat?

OK, fine, you got your liberal arts B.A. sometime in the last five years. What does that mean?

It means that you've succeeded in joining the non-industrial proletariat. You're $5,000--$20,000 in debt. Your parents are worried about you. You're making just enough to get by. Statistically speaking, you're working in one of the following five job categories:

* Waitperson/ barista, etc.
* Copy center
* Care center
* Convenience store
* Telephone solicitation.

-- Zizka, "Forget the B.A."

Zizka offered an interesting response in the comments to my earlier post, "A Question for Anyone Who Cares to Respond." I now discover this equally provocative piece at his website. He paints a grim picture of employment prospects for liberal arts majors. Is it an accurate one?

The Accidental Admin at the Financial Aid Office might be inclined to answer "No." In this post on "The Public and Private Benefits of Higher Education," the Accidental Admin suggests that higher education leads to, among other things, "personal economic benefits" in the form of higher salaries, higher savings, better working conditions and the like (without, however, specifying which type of higher education). On the other hand, here is an article (admittedly dealing with the situation in the UK) which suggests that "Arts degrees 'reduce earnings:'"

A degree in an arts subject reduces average earnings to below those of someone who leaves school with just A-levels, a study shows.

Graduates in these subjects - including history and English - could expect to make between 2% and 10% less than those who quit education at 18, researchers at Warwick University found...

Professor Ian Walker, leading the study, said: 'Feeling warm about literature doesn't pay the rent.'

I hope Zizka is wrong, but I certainly wouldn't dismiss his argument out of hand. And I guess it's hard to argue with this:

The people who are giving you this cultural enrichment stuff are people who need you to study with them, because if you don't, they won't have jobs. If you and your parents have to make a lot of sacrifices in order for you to study with these guys, that's perfectly OK as far as they're concerned.

Whether or not Zizka is right, I think it's important to note an important distinction here. American higher education is of course highly stratified into different tiers. If you received a liberal arts degree from, for example, Harvard Univesity or Amherst College, chances are you're not working as a clerk at a convenience store. However, the real growth in liberal arts education that occurred with the expansion of higher ed. during the 1960s took place not at the top tier (many of those schools having been doing liberal arts for a couple of centuries) but at the second and third tiers. Statistically speaking, the real question is, What are the employment/earning prospects of someone who earns a liberal arts degree at a school that is not in top tier?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 12:34 AM

I'm inclined to think that a BA is more useful than this suggests, if only because it serves as a social marker that you've done more with your life than what was required of you by law (feel free to argue with me on this!). It might not translate into a stunning career on its own, but I'd bet that people lacking one will run into more questions and scepticism from employers than those with the credential.

Off to read Zizka's post...

Posted by: Rana at June 2, 2003 12:56 AM

Based on the BBC article, the methodology used the UK study was incorrect. You can't assume *causation* based on data that shows arts students (for example) make less than law students. Maybe the causation relates to the intelligence, motivation level, family connections, or whatever associated with the various study programs...that is, maybe people with certain attributes tend to choose certain programs of study.

There are very well-understood statistical methods for dealing with this kind of thing by "holding constant" various factors. I'd be more inclined to take the study seriously if this had been done.

Posted by: David Foster at June 2, 2003 12:59 AM

...I'm back.

One thought that I had after reading Zizka's essay on the usefulness of the BA is that I am of two minds about the value of separating work-aimed education/training and education to enrich the person. On the one hand, having the educational system divided into career training institutions (geared toward teaching students the practical skills needed to succeed in journalism, or nursing, or engineering or whatever) and liberal education institutions (geared towards scholarship and instilling the life of the mind) would produce the happy result of not having to constantly explain to "just-give-me-the- degree-so-I- can-go-make- some-money" students why a given historical text is relevant to their future career paths. This would also save students from "wasting" their time; they can get right to work without fussing around with "irrelevant" information unrelated to their jobs.

On the other hand, and this hand in some ways seems more compelling to me, I'm unhappy with advocating a further divide between "useful" skills and "irrelevant" scholarship. Do we really want a nation of people who think of themselves only in terms of their work identity? If my life is to be run by corporate CEOs, I'd like them to have discussed things like ethics, morality, class warfare, unionization, etc. etc. and have a sense of the world as encompassing more than whatever limited personal experience they possess. If we are to have political figures deciding the course of our lives, I'd like them to know how to think critically about data, recognize that interpretation is contingent on many factors, and that, again, there is more to life than has met their eyes. It would also be nice, while I am wishing, to have consumers and voters with some training in how to tell a compelling, supported argument from the slickness of empty spin.

I suppose that Zizka is hopeful that separating the two educational tracks will serve to distinguish knowledge from skills-training, but I wonder how many average people would make the effort to seek out the former if they were not socially required to do so.

In other words, degree may be irrelevant as far as jobs goes, but if the educational process has operated as it should (and I'm not saying that it doesn't) the experience of being educated should result in more rounded, thoughtful citizens than there might otherwise be (hopeless cases aside).

Posted by: Rana at June 2, 2003 01:15 AM

First of all, my "Forget the BA" was venting and pretty hyperbolic. It was, however, based on my own experience and also the experience of my son's generation.

When I found out about this forum, Philosophy.com, etc., I came loaded for bear, since I've been dealing with these questions in my own life for years. A temperate point of view should be neither expected, nor even hoped for, from me.

To me, this ultimately is not so much a question about undergraduate ed as it is about the value of the liberal arts. There's this enormous gap between the claims of the liberal arts, and what they are actually able to make happen anywhere. A century ago, either in Europe or in China, a competent classicist could get some kind of government job. Nowadays there's really nothing outside the university (not even HS teaching, without further schooling -- and many educationists seem to resent liberal arts types.) The big decisions are made by economic-utilitarian-technical people like MBA's, economists, global strategists, publicists, promoters, engineers, and practically every non-BA type you can name, many of who have a greater or lesser degree of contempt for the liberal arts as such.

I could go on and on.I do think, as I said in the piece on my site, that something's got to give. A particular issue for me is the way that the liberal arts (e.g. philosophy) have tried to redefine themselves as specialties with rigorous methodologies. I think that the strength of the liberal arts is in their inclusiveness and lack of specialized method (since specialization always involves exclusion by stipulation, definition, supposition, etc.). But later.

Posted by: zizka at June 2, 2003 01:43 AM

Okay, grant that your piece is hyperbolic and a bit on the intemperate side. I do think you've raised an important question here. I hope you are wrong about the prospects of liberal arts majors. But you may not be.

A liberal arts degree was once the preserve of a wealthy elite. Liberal arts education was democratized during the 1960s and 70s (some say insufficiently democratized, but certainly access expanded enormously if we take a longer view). Has this democratization/expansion occurred at the same time as its devaluation?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 01:53 AM

Interesting question, there. It suggests parallels in my mind with the issue of high culture versus mass culture -- though here the question would be less "is it less valuable because it is appreciated by the masses?" and more "is it less valuable because it is not appreciated by the masses?"

It seems that something else has changed, too: during the time of "elite" liberal education (for lack of a better phrase) it was generally accepted, as I recall, that persons possessing such education had status. It might have been scoffed at as mere "book learning", but there was a consensus that such knowledge was linked with status, even if you chose to thumb your nose that those who possessed it.

Now, it seems more like a person who has that knowledge has less status, or at least that the nose-thumbers have more. Previously, the intelligencia could be smug about being ridiculed, because their critics were of lower status; now it seems that the educated classes (for lack of a better phrase, again) are embarrassed by their possession of knowledge, and seek to hide it for fear of ridicule.

I recognize, of course, that these are probably gross oversimplifications, and it may be that I am confusing cause and effect (that is, the educated class may have received their status because of other factors, such as an elite background, which enabled them to ignore their detractors).

I do wonder, however, why colleges and universities don't do more to market (heh) their offerings in terms other than marketable skills.

Perhaps we're again poking at a part of a much larger beast -- the question of how to make knowledge and scholarship relevant in a world that increasingly seems driven by business thinking, consumerism, and the expansion of corporate power.

Posted by: Rana at June 2, 2003 02:18 AM

Where in business would you put a liberal arts major who told you that "truth is a lie in accordance with a fixed convention"? Lots of places.

1. The legal department
2. The office of governmental affairs
3. Sales, marketing, advertising
4. Political spokesperson
5. Jail
6. Pillory
7. Stocks
8. Whipping post

The liberal arts are fine. It is our teachers who have failed the discipline and our society with their glibness and shameless reptition of the empty sophistries of Zeno.

You, IA, are a refreshing change. You will fit in very well among whatever set of educated and reasonably principled people are fortunate enough to get you. I look forward to seeing how you take on the world of honest work, and make your mark. Your sense of injustice, your idealism, and your ability to remain civil, are exactly what the liberal arts at their most noble are all about.

Come into business, among the barbarians, and help us elevat the tone -- For Jowett, Arnold and the Queen.

Posted by: The Happy Tutor at June 2, 2003 04:37 AM

The nexus I've always found with a liberal-arts education (as opposed to an education aimed at qualifying for a particular profession) is the same as risk-tolerance vs risk-aversion. The person who is willing to pursue an education (and this is not just the courses on the transcript) for its own sake is not the same person who simply takes the courses that will get him or her into medical school, law school, a CPA firm, or whatever. The future employment-related track is also the risk-averse track. This will play itself out in all sorts of life issues. Naturally a person who can tolerate risk may suffer consequences of various sorts in a later career, and this may impact income. If that's the measure of life you're interested in, that's important, but this is also tautological. But as Mother Teresa put it, we are not called to be successes.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 2, 2003 04:29 PM

The issues may be confused by the fact that two very different kinds of people seem to get undergraudate liberal arts degrees:

Type 1--people who are genuinely interested in things intellectual; want to develop a broad base of knowledge; enjoy discussion and debate.
Type 2--people who don't know what they want to do; aren't particularly interested in anything; and don't want to work hard enough to pursue a degree in, say, engineering.

The reputation of Type 1 grads is probably being compromised by the large number of Type 2 grads.

Posted by: David Foster at June 2, 2003 04:39 PM

But here's the problem. I was a type 2 in college, and in some ways continue to be a type 2 person. I remember the lickspittle type 1 types from my undergraduate years who went to the Tuesday afternoon teas with the English profs. I was never interested enough in anything to justify kissing someone's bum for it. This is the antinomianism, say, of Socrates's Apology -- nobody, says he, really has a claim to knowing the important things in life, including the English profs.

Nor should one confuse an interest in things intellectual with an education. Things intellectual, it seems to me, become the province of the English majors or philosophy majors or whatever, and too readily threaten to become the content of an academic career. I much prefer type 2 -- George W. Bush is a type 2. Henry Adams was a type 2. Samuel Johnson was a type 2. Robert Frost was a type 2. Harry Truman was a type 2. It was pointed out to me the other day that the Twelve Apostles were type 2s, at best.

Robert Reich is a type 1. Joschka Fischer is a type 1. Jean-Paul Sartre was a type 1, as likely is some huge percentage of Francophones. Deconstructionists of all types are type 1. You see where I am going here.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 2, 2003 04:58 PM

Dominique de Villepin is a type 1.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 2, 2003 05:07 PM

I am really torn on this issue.

On the one hand, I don't want to side with those who simply dimiss the liberal arts degree as "useless" because it is not vocationally oriented.

On the other hand, I've come across some disturbing material lately (too lazy to collect and link at the moment, but may do so for a later post) on student debt. Apparently the average debt load has increased significantly over the past decade. The student loan default rates are also expected to rise, especially given the current state of the economy. I'm concerned that young people are basically being encouraged to mortgage their futures.

In my ideal world, the value of a liberal arts degree would be recognized (eg, in terms of the acquisition of general knowledge, the improvement and refinement of the ability to think and write clearly). But of course we are not living in this ideal world. At what point do the risks of a liberal arts degree become intolerable/inadvisable for all but the most adventurous?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 05:07 PM

Student loans are a way of paying for the cost of an education (however this may be defined). Clearly the demand for this good is high enough for students and their parents to go into debt for it.

It's interesting, though, that some well-paying career paths, such as computer programming and related fields, often do not require a college education. On the other hand, some pretty unappealing fields, like elementary or secondary teaching, employ extremely large numbers of college graduates. (In fact, considering that in many areas of the country the school district is the largest employer in town, teaching alone may explain the numbers interested in college educations.)

The only conclusion you can draw from student loans, it seems to me, is the interest they indicate in getting the education. But considering how politicians often want to play politics over student loans, it may also indicate a population of entitlement-consumers (such as those who may choose to become schoolteachers for reasons of steady work, security, and benefits).

Posted by: John Bruce at June 2, 2003 05:17 PM

Rereading Erin's post, I think some of the implications of my post just above can explain her question -- what are the benefits of a non-top tier liberal education?

There are certain career tracks in "flyover country" that do definitely require a college degree, though not necessarily a technical or career-oriented one (so we will ignore majors like "criminal justice studies"). Graduates of state universities (the former teachers colleges) need their degrees to go into elementary and secondary teaching, or into management-level government jobs, where the degrees are often an absolute requirement as part of civil service rules. These two occupations probably absorb a very large proportion of non-top tier liberal arts bachelors' degrees.

Another category of liberal arts student in non-top tier institutions would be the children of proprietors of family businesses, who would be expected to acquire some degree of polish but would not necessarily need to have a career-oriented major to run a furniture store.

I've also seen the observation made that some of the very large US corporations hire specifically from second- or third-tier institutions to get career employees; presumably their attitudes of complacent mediocrity would fit more closely a lifetime in their corporate cultures. A business major might help there, but I'm sure they don't turn up their noses at history or economics if the person is otherwise presentable.

Posted by: John Bruce at June 2, 2003 06:57 PM

An interesting discussion. Glad I found it. Many points I would have made have been covered, but . . . a true liberal arts degree teaches/allows the acquirement of quite a few useful skills: 1) ability to research without much direction; 2) ability to boil down a large amount of info into something more useful; 3) some sense of order; 4) willingness to interact with actual human beings; 5) self-directedness; 6) good work habits; 7) a thick skin; etc, etc. (Based on my students).

Way back when, I hired for 3M. There are many jobs that a decent BA will get you in the door for an interview. Not only that, but in some cases we were searching for a good general education plus the above skills. Yes, second and third tier schools tend to turn out very good folks for these jobs, and people tend to stay in them. (Plus, we would pay for further, useful (to the corp) education. Of course people stayed.)

Also, one of the problems at largish regional state Univ (guess where I teach?) is that the college of education no longer is a BA oriented school. They tend to teach (Gag!!) pedagogy. Ed students are educated (their term -- think about it) into the education lobby. They learn how to teach, not how to learn or many specific courses areas. In most states, those with a BA can only teach on a temporary certificate (think about that one) while they are taking the required pedagogy courses.

I have PhD and several years teaching in some specific areas, and if I was willing to teach at the local high school, I would be regarded as fundamentally untrained until I took and passed the pedagogy courses. Oh, well.

Anyway, I help my students find jobs, and I tend to tell them to tell potential employers that they have been "trained to be trained." That is, they can probably learn quite quickly the necessary specific skills to succeed in the job in question because they know how to acquire new skills and they have acquired most of the basics.

P.S. My brother is an employment recruiter (head hunter) who finds "hospital imaging salesmen" (people who sell cat-scans, X-rays, MRIs, PET scans, etc) exclusively. They start at $80,000. Top end is probably around a half mil per year. His best candidates uniformly have a BA/BS and two or so years selling copiers!! See above skill list for the reason.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at June 2, 2003 07:30 PM

"I've also seen the observation made that some of the very large US corporations hire specifically from second- or third-tier institutions to get career employees; presumably their attitudes of complacent mediocrity would fit more closely a lifetime in their corporate cultures..."

Let me suggest an alternative explanation. Perhaps they find that people from these institutions have less arrogance and sense of entitlement than many of those from "first-tier" institutions.

Do you by any chance remember which companies?

Posted by: David Foster at June 2, 2003 10:28 PM

Also, I'd like to second what JorgX says about sales jobs. They're not all for sleazy people in plaid jackets. Many business-to-business sales positions are interesting and remunerative. Keys to success include (1)a high degree of empathy and sensitivity to emotional dynamics, coupled with (2)a reasonably high degree of assertiveness, and (3)ability to be self-managing.
Oral and written communication are important, as is the ability to learn rapidly.

Sales jobs are also excellent positioning for future high-level corporate jobs (something young MBAs don't always realize.)

Posted by: David Foster at June 3, 2003 04:07 AM

michael berube wrote a book (the profession of english? something like that) about how the skills of liberal arts degrees are even more necessary in the information age.

re:zizka's comments, the publicists i know *are* english majors. i think a lot of the front end corp jobs, esp the ones that primarly involve writing, are full of english majors. or at least, there are times when i've felt that having an english degree would have been to my advantage in getting a particular job.

Posted by: drapetomaniac at June 3, 2003 06:20 AM

John Bruce - your types 1 and 2 are intriguing and amusing - they have me thinking...If I could muddy things a bit - while I laughed out loud at your mention of de Villepin and Francophones generally -- I'm typing this from an internet cafe in France -- I think you're collapsing things in your category 1 to the detriment of oneies.

Have you read Paul Fussell's book, Class [can't find the question mark on this keyboard]. He comes up with a category he calls X - an independent minded, highly educated [though not necessarily via college courses], bold, amused, calm, not-risk-averse, nonconformist, curious, alive person. Not the grade grubbing tea-with-English faculty jerk you nicely evoke, but rather a little of 1 and a little of 2 - somewhat out of it in college, natively unwilling to kiss ass or follow crowds and unwilling to think in narrow terms of personal advancement/money/prestige -- yet authentically responsive to various opportunities for real thinking in college and then out of it.

In short, does your system have room for a one and a half or an X or someone who combines receptive intellect with healthy rebellion and a subversive sense of humor question mark...

Posted by: chantal at June 3, 2003 01:21 PM

I'm sorry - the original 1 and 2 idea, I now see, was David Foster's.

Posted by: chantal at June 3, 2003 01:24 PM