Sunday, March 3, 2013

Is a Liberal Arts Education a Waste of Time?

There's been a lot of talk lately on whether or not a liberal arts college education is worth the cost involved in getting it, and graduate liberal arts degrees are even more controversial. Someone with a bachelors in history can pivot that into something very specifically practical if they desire. I will say that a lot of this debate stems from the fallout of the last great recession that has rendered many young people without work experience unemployed and living with their parents.

The other day, out with some friends, I made the rather caustic statement that a liberal arts degree was a waste of time, and in response, my wife (who has two degrees in piano performance) says, well that's what I have. I did offer one corollary, that children should have a rather vigorous liberal arts education throughout their lives that increases in intensity as they enter high school, which should include reading from original sources, research and a lot of writing.

Because I often say things off the cuff that don't necessarily capture my true feelings, I thought it would be a good idea to vet some of this.

The first question we should ask is what should we be getting out of our educational system? Should it lead directly to a job that matches exactly with the degree we're obtaining? Are their non-monetary reasons to get educated?

First of all, I think there are all kinds of reasons to get as much education as you possibly can and that this education should basically never stop. And there are all sorts of reasons why this is important that span far beyond how impressive specific knowledge looks on your resume. A vital democracy depends on a broadly educated population. Churches and non-profits depend on skilled talent willing to donate it for free. To get where we want to be as a society, we need more people willing to do more without compensation, even when doing that thing requires a lot of skill.

Last week, I took my oldest daughter to see a chamber orchestra perform some pretty amazing chamber music. Her violin teacher was performing a Bach duet concerto in this concert, and by the way, it was both free and amazing. Her teacher has advanced degrees in violin and was now giving away her performances for free.

Only an extreme few of us can be professional musicians or tenured professors or full-time, best-selling authors. The world simply has too many problems to solve to afford this. There are too many ditches to dig, sick people to care for, roads to build. There are only so many people we can carve out of society to write something nobody really wants to read. Since, every author and musician is now competing with artists both past and present and since artistic production is copied and broadly distributed, we simply don't need that many of them, at least that many who do it full time. There are parts of our economy where we do need a lot of workers - teachers, nurses, doctors most primarily. But most of these laborers are relatively low wage and none really require advanced degrees in the liberal arts.

As families are organized and adults pair off, at least one member of this pair needs to have practical skills to get essential work done, work important enough that someone out there is willing to pay for.

So, while I want my kids to nail their liberal arts education, I hope each one of them has a desire and will to also pursue skills that will translate into a practical career. If they want to hitch their wagon on the hopes of marrying someone who will provide, cool, a liberal arts degree is probably ok, but better not go into a lot of debt for this.

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