Doing Students a Disservice? An Ethical Note on Advising Liberal Arts Majors
Should an adviser discourage a student from pursuing a liberal arts degree? Or if the student is already a liberal arts major, should an adviser encourage the student to switch programs?
This line of inquiry is one advisers need to consider seriously, if for no other reason than students, parents, and public pundits are asking us versions of these questions. Indeed, it was an exasperated academic adviser’s defense of the liberal arts to parents that prompted his wife, Kim Brooks, to publish an oppositional piece in the online magazine Salon.com. Brooks answers the question in my title with a qualified “yes,” which might also be phrased as “perhaps.” Albeit more hyperbolically stated than her actual conclusion, Brooks (2011) proposes “kill[ing]” the liberal arts degree. She makes this claim precisely because she concludes that the degree fails to adequately prepare “kids for the world,” with “the world” being more or less synonymous with employment (Brooks, 2011, ¶ 5). In contrast, I offer a “no” to my question. I advance this claim by demonstrating that Brooks’ argument is flawed, that liberal arts majors remain employable, and that we need to challenge the tendency to frame an education’s worth primarily in economic terms.
Although she prepares the reader to expect a call for the immediate demise of the liberal arts degree, Brooks really wants something more modest. Brooks dreams of its recreation into a much more business-friendly education leading to a degree that, to borrow from Brooks’ (2011) psychology-degree-holding babysitter, would ensure a student knows “how to use Excel, write out a business plan, do basic accounting” (¶11). In light of a Harvard study about the curriculum, she even muses that perhaps the United States needs to become more like Europe and start making students discern their career paths in middle school. Additionally, Brooks (2011) implies that professors and advisers need to learn the “language of real-world career preparation” (¶ 16). All of this is necessary in light of the fact that so many graduates are surprised by “their utter unemployability” (Brooks, 2011, ¶ 10). Brooks primarily uses autobiographical narrative to illustrate the problems she ascribes to the liberal arts degree. Her post-undergraduate life story focuses on her continually changing jobs: restaurant hostess, English tutor for ESL students, paralegal, adjunct teacher, and freelance writer (Brooks, 2011, ¶ 7). According to her overt argument, the reason she shifts jobs is because her bachelor’s degree failed to prepare her for a career.
Yet Brooks (2011) reveals something about herself in this personal narrative—a self-admitted problem with “decision making”—that weakens her argument (¶ 8). This aspect of her personality appears to be a major obstacle to her obtaining “professional and financial stability” (Brooks, 2011, ¶ 5). In spite of their inability to talk about “career preparation,” Brooks’ professors and advisers would point to her having “completed summer internships in various journalistic endeavors” as well as her strong “writing, research, and critical-thinking skills” when they assured her that she would “land on [her] feet” after graduation (Brooks, 2011, ¶ 6). These journalistic internships indicate that as an undergraduate Brooks meant to parlay her English degree into a journalism career. Yet noticeably she does not even include attempts to get employment in this field. Brooks more explicitly points to indecisiveness as being a core problem for her life goals when she reflects on her professors telling her about the immense versatility of a liberal arts degree. “The possibilities were literally limitless. It was like being 6 years old again and trying to decide if I’d become an astronaut or a ballerina” (Brooks, 2011, ¶ 17).
If indecisiveness is the problem, why then does Brooks identify curriculum reform as the solution? Brooks wants the curriculum to force her to be different. Her undergraduate education, she argues, would not have “deprepared” her for the job market if alongside helping her develop her skills in “writing, reading, and analysis,” it had also redressed her “weaknesses in organization, pragmatic problem solving, and decisions making” (Brooks, 2011, ¶ 8). Partially Brooks appears to desire external persons and institutions to impose on and instill in her what she cannot do for herself. Yet Brooks acknowledges that she would refuse to submit to her own curriculum reforms. When her husband asked her what she would have done if her undergrad had “forced [her] to declare a career plan or take an accounting class or study Web programming instead of contemporary lit,” Brooks (2011) replied, “I probably would have transferred” (¶ 18, 19). Her commitment to what she views as an unemployable degree is so strong that she completed a master of fine arts program, even after years of unsteady employment. In short, Brooks cannot decide whether or not she really wants to be employable as she defines the term. Moreover, Brooks makes a fundamental but easy mistake. She confuses a personal problem (indecisiveness) with a systematic one (a school’s curriculum).
But Brooks’ concern over the unemployable liberal arts degree could be valid in spite of the indecisiveness issue. Based on people she knows, Brooks (2011) puts forth a 2:1 ratio for unemployed versus employed bachelor of arts degree holders (¶ 9). Moreover, she cites a New York Times article that adds more empirical evidence that liberal arts, and especially humanities, degrees are just not cutting it in the great recession. In this article, Catherine Rampell (2011) points out that for recent college graduates the employment rate has dropped from 90 to 56 percent between 2007 and 2010 (¶ 5). Area studies majors came in the worst with only 44.7 percent landing a job within the first year out of school (Rampell, 2011, ¶ 8). Between the top two fields (along with engineering), education programs saw 71.1 percent of their majors find employment (Rampell, 2011, ¶ 8). For the liberal arts, these are certainly less than ideal numbers.
Such troubling figures reveal at least two findings besides the fact that many students are not getting jobs: other students are and there is a structural problem internal to the economy. Rampell’s article implies that the humanities are somewhere close to but higher than area studies in employment numbers. If the humanities were among the worst, this also means that the social sciences and the natural sciences and mathematics (the other two branches of the liberal arts degree) did even better. Brooks (2011) herself admits to knowing people who “parlayed a degree in English or anthropology into a career-track gig” (¶ 9). Even when the United States was just beginning to crawl slowly out of the recession of 2001, Kimberly A. Taylor (2003) concurred with a 1993 study finding “marketing majors might be no more desirable than other business or liberal arts majors” to employers since the raw skills most marketing firms sought in graduates were non-discipline specific (p. 97). More recently the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP) (AAC&U, 2008, pp. 11–13) arrived at similar conclusions regarding desired skill sets when they surveyed a wider range of employers. In other words, the bachelor of arts degree holder is employable even in these exceptionally rough times (see also Rust, 2011, pp. 10–12).
Still Brooks’ call for liberal arts programs to revise their curricula to assist students develop more marketable skills, such as those that Taylor and the LEAP list, might actually help some students do better than graduates in other fields. Indeed Brooks’ recommendations align well with the career advising recommendations that Leigh S. Shaffer and Jacqueline M. Zalewski (2011 a, b) propose in two recent articles. It is in the student’s best interest to prepare as well as possible for the job market.
But there are very substantial limits to how much students can do to maximize their chances of obtaining a job. No matter how many different skills students acquire, collectively speaking, they run up against an intractable obstacle—there are not enough jobs, period. Furthermore, it behooves advisers to recall that even in good economic times, students face a system that always operates with less than 100 percent employment. This gap between the actually employed and the employable is the economy’s structural problem. Even if students in liberal arts shift to programs commonly seen as more practical, that would only lead to more unemployed people holding those other degrees. No matter what, many students will not get work, even though they are well qualified. Let me rephrase this point to ensure clarity: An employable student does not mean that a student will be employed.
If education can help with employability but not guarantee it, then advisers do their students a disservice if they accept framing the degree’s value solely or primarily in economic terms. An economic utilitarian paradigm threatens to make education appear useless if employers do not decide to recognize the student as a valuable person by offering them a job. Rather than decreeing the person among those “throwaway workers with throwaway skills” (Sheffer & Zalewski, 2011a, p. 69), no job offer connotes that the recent graduate failed to count as an employable worker. In a cultural and economic context in which an increasing number of employers are basically posting “unemployed need not apply” signs, many of these graduates are exposed to the possibility of being declared preemptively obsolete (NELP, 2011). The definitional constitution of this phenomenon asserts that since no other employer wanted you, neither do I. Operating under this logic skews an employer’s view of human potential in a way that disfavors the recent graduate.
This situation is symptomatic of a larger, longer-term, and perhaps more nebulous cultural problem. The value of employment and making large salaries has become inflated vis-à-vis other cultural goods. The good life has, in short, become nearly synonymous with the good job. If too much value is invested in employment, then people risk not being able to recognize that other aspects of their life are meaningful, especially when considering the future.
Now I am not saying employment and rewarding work are unimportant, which would be blatantly false. Instead, advisers might do well to remind students about the relationship between happiness and wealth that scholars have found. As Harry Brighouse (2006, pp. 45–46) summarizes, “The low status and stress that accompany relative poverty, and the lack of control over one’s conditions of life, diminish people’s ability to flourish. But once people have achieved a reasonable level of financial security, additional income and wealth do not make them happier.” Thus economic viability is necessary but also necessarily insufficient to living well.
How then can the liberal arts degree help prepare students to better achieve a rewarding life? I present two things, citizenship and culture, to illustrate the possible values of the liberal arts degree for students outside of the employability framework. Before I do so, however, I must state an important caveat: No institution of higher learning can guarantee that students will use what they learn to these ends. Unlike the employment issue, more of the impetus in developing citizenship and participating thoughtfully in culture resides with the student, not some other person or entity.
The liberal arts degree has traditionally aimed at helping students engage in the democratic process. In other words, the curriculum often strives to cultivate students as good citizens. Let us consider how this might work. Martha Nussbaum (2010) recently presented a version of this classic goal tailored to the “global citizen” that she views as necessary for twenty-first-century life. Out of the seven attributes that she marks as crucial for the educated citizen, let us consider just one. An enabled citizen should possess the “ability to have concern for the lives of others, to grasp what policies of many types mean for the opportunities and experiences of one’s fellow citizens, of many types, and for people outside one’s own nation” (Nussbaum, 2010, p. 26). Courses across the liberal arts can help prepare students to think about individuals and systems in the complex and informed ways that this recommendation demands. The ways of thinking and specific content from classes, for example, in biology, sociology, and political science could combine to assist a graduate determine if a politician’s new nutrition bill will likely have its intended consequences.
Another way that a liberal arts education, especially in the humanities, can benefit students is in how they engage with (popular) culture. As Matthew Guterl (2011) points out, “What we [i.e. Americans] do best—despite the near total absence of public support—is paint, and sing, and compose, and write, and read, and watch. And then argue and debate over all of it” (¶ 12). Literature, religious studies, and art history courses, for instance, can all assist the student in better understanding what cultural products mean to people and how they influence an individual. In other words, they can puzzle out how the viewer (or listener, reader, writer, etc.), the text (painting, poem, song, etc.), and the context relate to each other, which, in turn, can impact how graduates consume and create these cultural products.
Advisers would do well by their students, then, if they disrupt the employability framework and make students seriously consider additional ways education can impact their lives. Doing otherwise risks abetting a cultural logic that threatens to reduce people to components in a complex economic machine, as expendable as a broken keyboard.
Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). (2008). College learning for the new global community (Executive summary). Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/GlobalCentury_ExecSum_3.pdf
Brighouse, H. (2006). On education. New York, NY: Routledge.
Brooks, K. (2011, June 18). Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree? Salon.com. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2011/06/19/time_to_kill_liberal_arts.
Guterl, M. P. (2011, June 30). The humanities are more important. Insidehighed.com. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/06/30/essay_defending_the_humanities
National Employment Law Project (NELP). (2011). Hiring discrimination against the unemployed. Briefing Paper. Retrieved from http://www.nelp.org/page/-/UI/2011/unemployed.discrimination.7.12.2011.pdf?nocdn=1
Nussbuam, M. (2010). Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rampell, C. (2011, May 18). Many with new college degree find the job market humbling. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/pages/business/index.html
Rust, M. M. (2011). The utility of liberal education: Concepts and arguments for use in academic advising. NACADA Journal, 33(1), 5–13.
Shaffer, L. S., & Zalewski, J. M. (2011a). Career advising in a VUCA environment. NACADA Journal, 31(1), 64–74.
Shaffer, L. S., & Zalewski, J. M. (2011b). A human capital approach to career advising. NACADA Journal, 31(1), 75–87.
Taylor, K. A. (2003). Job market: An innovative course preparing undergraduates for marketing careers. Journal of Marketing Education, 25(2), 97–107.
About the Author(s)
William E. Smith III, Ph.D., is an academic adviser at Indiana University, Bloomington, in Bloomington, IN. He can be reached at wsmithii@Indiana.edu.