Who Can Value Liberal Arts?

A colleague shared an interesting story. He asks students in class, “If you could make the exact same salary being a garbage hauler or a doctor, which profession would you choose?”

Students invariably choose garbage hauler.

This is part of the discussion of why students see absolutely no value to the college education but that of getting a credential needed to find a job. It’s a class thing. You need to be of a certain social class (and I mean social, not economic. You can be poor as a church mouse) to value liberal arts education because it expands your horizons and offers you access to the most beautiful achievements of humanity.

This is to say that the many folks who see a college degree as nothing but a gateway to a job are just as right as those few who see it as a chance to experience the pleasure of learning. They come at it from different realities, and each approach makes sense in their particular reality.

4 thoughts on “Who Can Value Liberal Arts?”

  1. If your colleague is asking about jobs to see who values a liberal arts education “because it expands your horizons and offers you access to the most beautiful achievements of humanity”, asking people to choose between a garbage hauler or a doctor is a poor way to see it.

    If you’re asking about salary, of course people are going to think in terms of cost-benefit to themselves. A garbage hauler doesn’t need to go into debt and has a 40 hour a week job. Nobody is calling a garbage hauler into work for emergency garbage hauling. A lot of garbage haulers are unionized.

    A doctor not only has to go to college and excel, they have to go to professional school which is like buying another house. Most aspiring doctors are not motivated by the need to help humanity or a love of liberal arts; they’re motivated by money and prestige. Also, if you talk to enough doctors to realize that many of them aren’t actually well educated in the the liberal arts sense. [Otherwise, how do you explain Ben Carson?] The same goes for many engineers [who are worse than doctors.]

    Here’s an article on the drop in the percentage and absolute number of humanities majors (which doesn’t include STEM).

    So does the crisis in the humanities actually reflect a shift in what students want to select as a major, or is it just a change in what they think they should choose as a major? Suppose college tuition was free and every first-year had a guaranteed job lined up for after graduation. This parallel universe does exist at military-service academies—and at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs, humanities majors are at about the same level as they were in 2008.


    1. The example about the garbage haulers is evidence of the class difference I’m talking about. I’d never consider a garbage hauler job even if it paid a million dollars. And not surprisingly, I went to college in search of truth and beauty. It never occurred to me to think about a paycheck at the end of the road as a guiding principle in choosing a major, for instance. Even though I was an immigrant and lived in the kind of poverty my classmates couldn’t imagine.

      In order to understand all this chatter about how reading Proust makes you a better human being that we keep offering students, you need to come from a very particular background. To me, a life spent not reading Vargas Llosa is a life not worth living. But we can’t teach students from this position because it’s very alien to them.


  2. Doctors often have no time to read Vargas Llosa. As a STEM academic at a teaching heavy university, I struggle to carve out the time and focus to read and write poetry or fantasy fiction, , my own humanities passion, during much of the year. But the garbage man has time, because their job stays at work. The better analogy for me would be doing something like retail cashiering – hard work in every way imaginable (I did it during college), but when it’s done it’s done, and if you could earn a “decent living” by whatever standard you chose in forty hours a week, those jobs leave more time to read and write and dream and be than a professional job…


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