Liberal Arts Degrees Need Better PR

Recently a “Latenight Rant” by Peter Wirzbicki was posted onto Ph.D. Octopus taking to task the mounting pile of “don’t go to grad school” articles that have proliferated everywhere from academic blogs to the Chronicle of Higher Education to major national magazines. Wirzbicki is tired of hearing about what a terrible decision he made, especially since the people telling him that are mostly people who made that same decision and who had the luxury of making it when the economic outlook wasn’t a re-run of the Great Depression. Wirzbicki argues that these negative-Nelly academics are writing these articles to assuage consciences that are guilty of not taking proactive steps to help their students. Although Wirzbicki’s solutions are political, I think there is something even simpler and more proactive that these professors should be doing to help their students. Professors need to start explaining to the world why a graduate education is important and what value it has outside of academia. They need to start providing grad school with some positive PR.

This is something that has become increasingly important – and dare I say obvious – in the past few years, as the economic situation has forced the academic world to start grappling with the fact that far more students enter PhD programs than will ever receive a faculty appointment. This realization has suddenly dawned on the academy, especially in the liberal arts, but the irony is that this has been the case almost exclusively for the past thirty years (for example, see this chart and article about professional historians). Yet, during this time, there has been little effort to prepare students for alternative careers or to investigate what benefits they would bring. There has been absolutely no attempt, so far as I have seen, to explain to the business world why these students would make strong employees. And this also goes for the undergraduates choosing a liberal arts degree as opposed to a “safe” science degree. There is no sense that anybody – professors, career offices, university administrators – is actually articulating to the public why these degrees are valuable. And don’t get me started on the fact that we can’t all be science majors. There are all sorts of people in the world and all sorts of jobs in the world, and liberal arts majors are actually necessary.

I won’t mount a full argument for this here, but there are certainly many extremely important qualities that educations in the liberal arts provides. There are even more useful skills that come out of the process of going to graduate school and meeting the requirements of a degree program. To start with the obvious, as Matthew Iglesias argued in Slate, anybody who receives a degree in a field based in reading, writing, and arguing in the English language (or any other language), has proved a basic ability to read, research, plan, and write. Even better if that person has gotten good grades in their program. As Iglesias says,

If you can compose an email that’s 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you’re going to get ahead in a wide range of fields. Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who’s pretty good at his job and a person who’s able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans.

These abilities are exactly what comes out of a liberal arts education, even one in a “useless” area like English or art history, just at the basic level of the undergrad degree.

I would argue further that graduate students, people with master’s degrees or PhDs, have all of these qualities but that the qualities have been sharpened even more. Add to that a critical thinking ability that is stronger than most people’s. These are just the basics. Somebody who has written a Master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation while teaching classes has proven their time-management skills, a certain level of managerial experience, the ability to function on a team (and hopefully to deliver useful but tactful criticism), perhaps the ability to budget, in all likelihood proficiency in at least one foreign language. The list actually goes on.

These benefits are, however, never talked about within academia. Career centers don’t tell students about these abilities, or how to market them to employers. Professors and other grad students don’t try to explain these benefits to the outside world. This needs to stop. Instead of writing “don’t go to grad school” articles, professors and other professionals at universities need to start articulating all of the reasons that their work is creating a skilled workforce for the future.

Government Should Fund Scientific Advancement

A few months ago I sent this meme to a friend of mine, an engineer who works for NASA. It’s the famous photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, with the caption “We got here with a camera less powerful than your cell phone.” I thought it was both amusing and mind-boggling. Needless to say, today the calculations that go into all parts of a space mission, from conception to execution, are almost all carried out on extremely advanced computers. My friend, however, saw something completely different in the image. His first response was, “It tells you that space exploration is a political will problem being sold as a technical problem.” And I think he is right, in a very important way. Extremely complex technical problems could be solved if only there was the political backing to propel us to the solutions.

We all have some idea of the national narrative of space exploration during the Cold War. The “space race” is a recognizable phenomenon that brings to mind Sputnik, the Apollo missions, and a national direction of energy, money, and imagination toward space. NASA, Space, and “the future” were exciting and there was a national narrative that looked forward to American dominance of the starry skies, backed by positive public opinion and strong government support. The political highlight may have been Kennedy’s backing of a “moon race,” saying “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” There was also, at least so we remember, a turning of the american imagination toward space and the future of technology, represented then by movies and television series like The Jetsons, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, and a proliferation of B horror and sci-fi movies about space exploration and aliens.

Popular support for the space missions and, especially, the funding of NASA, was not  as strong as we like to remember. In fact, almost all of the enthusiasm for the new space program may have been generated by children, who were eager to play with space-based toys and imagine themselves as astronauts, while their more practical parents worried about the huge expenditures that were devoted to NASA in a foolhardy race toward a rock a few hundred thousand miles away.  Public opinion polling showed support for NASA at less than 35% for most of the 1960’s. Despite this negative public opinion, the fact is that the government and nation did decide to turn their attention strongly and resolutely toward the solution of a scientific problem, and that decision resulted in huge advances in many fields of technology, science, mathematics, and engineering.

Of course, NASA and space exploration do not necessarily remain the most important direction of today’s political will-power. That is not to say that I think NASA should lose its federal support. The percentage of NASA’s budget within the total national budget is less than 1% which is not a cause for major consternation, and the program still provides important scientific and economic development. But new, major directions in government funding for science and innovation, especially in areas that have major economic importance, should be seriously considered.

There are several areas that could warrant a new focus from our political leaders, new medical research and new energy policies for instance, but, unfortunately, none of them are as sexy as space travel, moon landings, or jet-packs. It is hard to imagine a group of kindergartners playing at being hydro-electric engineers or photovoltaic technologies experts. Designing new genetic therapies while considering their ethical application isn’t exactly the stuff that dreams are made of. And this only speaks to the children. New advances in technology, and the money it takes to achieve them, are viewed by adults with less enthusiasm than hostility.

The counter-argument to this is that the adults are right, the government should keep out of scientific development and the new advances that will prove profitable will be supported by corporations. As Fred Kaplan argues in a piece on bio-fuel and the military, sometimes the government is the best point for the initial development of new technologies. This is because corporations are all, necessarily, looking out for their bottom lines, sometimes without the ability to turn their organizations in radically new directions that may or may not pay off. Research and development is an expensive proposition, and the government can help cover some of those necessary expenses. As Kaplan says,

But some of modern history’s most revolutionary devices started out as too expensive; and they would have stayed that way—they might never have got off the ground—had the federal government not created the market. And since, in American politics, the military and space programs have been the federal government’s only sources of manufacturing, it’s the Pentagon and NASA that have created those markets.

The solution to this needs to be a political leadership that cuts through a lot of the political opposition to new technologies, and instead brings us forward. Instead of politicians who are worried about public perception, we need leaders who recognize new areas that need to be explored and who are unafraid to chart a course toward them. Ultimately, the solutions will validate the struggle to achieve them.