If I could go back and talk to my 18-year-old self, ahem, 40 years later, I’d probably give young John Boyle an earful about his college major decisions.
It would probably go something like this:
Old John, or OJ: “Dude, English? Really? Just become a bartender now.”
Young Know-It-All John the Jerk, or YJJ for short: “Seriously, old man? You let me get that fat, and that’s what you want to talk about? My major? How about a diet plan somewhere in the middle of our life?”
OJ: “Fair point.”
Hey, at least I tried to save YJJ from a life of low-paying-yet-fun teaching and journalism gigs. And, oh yes, let us not forget several years of part-time (OK, a year or two of full-time) pizza delivery that was much better paying than reporting jobs. I kid you not.
You may wonder what spurred this imaginary conversation. When I read Barbara Durr’s excellent piece in Asheville Watchdog last week about the declining enrollment and retention of students at the University of North Carolina Asheville, as well as an exodus of faculty, my mind immediately went to that dark place known as “Liberal Arts Guilt.”
Way back when the world was mostly steam-powered, I graduated from James Madison University in Virginia with a degree in English and minors in education and political science. It’s like I was trying to be poor.
A friend of mine majored in English and History, and – swear to God – at a comedy club show that summer, Jay Leno, after inquiring about his major, did not miss a beat before saying, “So, you want to drive a cab, huh?”
This prejudice against the liberal arts degree, even from those of us who went that route, is very real. Durr detailed a lot of UNCA’s struggles, including meandering leadership, underfunding, low pay and the high cost of living here, and other universities’ cheaper tuition. But she also touched on the perception that liberal arts degrees – and that has always been UNCA’s claim to fame – are considered less valuable than technical, science or math-based degrees.
Also, some conservative political leaders view liberal arts institutions as bastions of liberalism themselves, and they hem and haw about liberal indoctrination, although that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what a liberal arts degree is about.
It’s a complicated problem, but the nut of the issue is that UNCA’s enrollment has dropped 25% since 2015, the largest decline by far in the 16-campus UNC system.
Colleges and universities across the country have seen a drop in enrollment during the pandemic, and a lot of students have questioned the value of a college degree, especially a seemingly vague degree in one of the “liberal arts.”
Now, I probably would advise Young Jerky John to at least consider getting a minor in business or economics or something with a business application. YJJ was very idealistic though, and he was convinced he was going to become either the next Ernest Hemingway or the second coming of Mike Royko.
(For the young readers out there, Hemingway was a Nobel laureate novelist, and Royko, a great newspaper columnist from Chicago. They both lived in the early 1600s and hung out with Shakespeare.)
The point is, I wouldn’t have listened to Old Me, and I probably shouldn’t have. Because here’s a key element in all of this that’s often lost: You’ve got to enjoy what you do for a living, and it’s got to be a good fit.
I could never be an accountant, unless you were looking for someone to be the fall guy for an IRS audit. Same for a computer programmer – I just don’t have that kind of brain.
Also, when I graduated college in 1986, the only computer exposure I’d had was being forced, as an education minor, to take a course in the BASIC computer language (Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). Now, it would’ve made sense to make a bunch of budding educators learn how to use a daggone computer, but it made zero sense to make us attempt to learn coding.
The teacher, mercifully, just agreed to pass everyone as long as we tried. I remember writing two codes, with the assistance of a computer science major friend, that did not work. At all. Wouldn’t spell my name out right.
Hey, we’ve both done all right in life.
And that’s my point. I make more than a fair living now, and I still enjoy what I do – and I’m glad I got a degree that says, “Bachelor of Arts.” Sure, the teaching career lasted just a year, but the skills I learned in college were great for journalism.
They included, first and foremost, clear and concise writing, and the ability to analyze a subject and distill it into digestible elements for others to read. Also, liberal arts majors pick up a breadth of knowledge that allows them to pull from it as you progress in your chosen career.
Were some of the classes I took useless? Absolutely. But most were more than worthwhile, and in my case, they often sparked more curiosity about those topics and how the world works.
Not hard to find criticism of ‘worthless’ degrees
Google, “Is a liberal arts education worthless?” and you’re going to tap into a furious online debate about the value of a liberal arts education. You can definitely drop into some rabbit holes, as well, but they’re kind of fun.
I started out on the negative side, reading two articles on LinkedIn by Steven Waechter, who writes frequently about higher education and in a newspaper column describes himself as “an ex-lawyer and current factory worker.” The headlines leave no doubt about his position: “Why Liberal Arts Degrees Are Worthless,” published in 2016, and, “The End of Liberal Arts Colleges,” from June 2020.
As you may have surmised, Waechter finds almost no value in a liberal arts degree, and he majored in political science. He also notes in that second article that the notion of a “liberal arts education” dates back to Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher who said a good orator must have a broad education, and “no man ought to be accounted an orator who was not thoroughly accomplished in all those arts that befit a freeborn gentleman.”
Waechter notes that, “Arts that befit a freeborn gentleman,” in Latin becomes “artes liberales.”
“The ‘Liberal Arts,’ that’s where the term originates,” Waechter writes. “Cicero bequeaths the term to us, and centuries later his works would be used as a foundation of what we call a liberal arts education. Based on the rhetorical tradition of Cicero, it aimed to teach grammar, logic, rhetoric (persuasive speech), mathematics, geometry, music, and the other arts appropriate for a gentleman or later a lady.”
Yes, judging by some of the more esoteric class offerings in liberal arts colleges these days, we’ve strayed from that list just a bit.
Waechter, while humorous at times, makes no bones about the perceived value of liberal arts.
“A college degree is worthless if nobody is willing to pay you for the skills you acquired while earning it,” he writes. “STEM graduates, as well as those from accounting programs, learned actual skills in their studies. Humanities majors learned only ‘soft skills’ like writing, and ‘critical thinking.’ All useless majors teach the same ‘soft skills.’ Many of the useful majors also teach them, so why not choose a useful major?”
It’s a fair enough point, but I’ll also note that here in 2022, employers are basically desperate for any intelligent, driven graduate who can learn, and who do indeed have soft skills, like knowing how to talk to people.
His dismissal is way too broad, I think, and he regards STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as the be-all, end-all.
This much I do agree with Waechter on, though: “It’s time to go back to basics; liberal arts colleges should re-examine their curriculum, and start from scratch.”
In defense of liberal arts
On the flip side, you’ll have no trouble finding articles that defend liberal arts, including David Deming’s 2019 column in the New York Times titled, “In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure.” Here’s the nut paragraph:
The advantage for STEM majors “fades steadily after their first jobs, and by age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up,” Deming writes.
He cites two reasons: Technical skills in high demand today become obsolete as technology progresses, and employers often want new graduates who know the latest.
“Second, although liberal arts majors start slow, they gradually catch up to their peers in STEM fields,” Deming continues. “This is by design. A liberal arts education fosters valuable ‘soft skills’ like problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability. Such skills are hard to quantify, and they don’t create clean pathways to high-paying first jobs. But they have long-run value in a wide variety of careers.”
Salary data back that up.
“Mid-career salaries are highest in management and business occupations, as well as professions requiring advanced degrees such as law,” Deming writes. “Liberal arts majors are more likely than STEM graduates to enter those fields.”
And while some folks love to poo-poo subjects such as philosophy and literature as having no relevance to the modern workplace, Deming points out that, “many of the skills most desired by employers are also quite abstract.”
He points to a 2018 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers that found employers considered these three attributes of college graduates the most important: written communication, problem-solving and the ability to work in a team.
In short, the debate goes on, and liberal arts degrees do have value.
Here’s my take. Yes, some liberal arts degrees have very little value in the workplace, and an uncomfortable fact of life is that you just have to make enough money to afford housing, food, a car, clothes and maybe some other niceties, like the occasional vacation. Or repaying your college loan.
I probably should’ve put more emphasis on this earlier. Like a lot of folks, the hard truths of the financial world really hit me once my wife and I had kids.
They’re adults now and live at home, and we charge them each $4,500 a month in rent.
Seriously, we’re all right because I’ve worked long enough to make a decent salary, and my wife is a nurse and makes even more than I do. Which she never reminds me of. Ever.
Hey, I’m OK with being a trophy husband.
But back to reality. Should universities like UNCA reconsider their offerings and be more practical? Absolutely.
College is way more expensive today than when this Boomer went, and you have to factor that into the equation. It is not a good plan to major in something where salaries hover around $40,000 when you’ll graduate with that much or more in debt.
But not everyone is cut out to be an accountant or computer wizard, and we need people with other skills and different ways of approaching and solving problems. Surely, we have tipped too far in society toward an “everyone should go to college” philosophy, and we definitely need more people with hands-on trade skills.
On the flip side, a whole lot of jobs these days require a college degree, fair or not, and you’re generally going to make more money with one than without.
As the Social Security Administration tells us, “There are substantial differences in lifetime earnings by educational attainment.”
“Men with bachelor’s degrees earn approximately $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates,” the SSA states. “Women with bachelor’s degrees earn $630,000 more. Men with graduate degrees earn $1.5 million more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Women with graduate degrees earn $1.1 million more.”
Here’s something my liberal arts education has taught me: Nothing in life is ever simple, and solutions are even more complicated.
I think UNCA will survive, as will the liberal arts education. It’s just going to take a lot of work, and some strong, steady leadership.
And maybe a little pizza delivery on the side.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org