I finally made some time to elucidate my views regarding post secondary education in the United States, as well as some of the views I expressed in that Thought Catalog article. First thing, using the term “liberal arts” was wrong. The word “humanities” fits the kind of content that I was talking about much better.
But before I go on about that, I need to share (some of) my college experience with you so that you can understand where I was coming from when I wrote the original article:
I graduated from high school not knowing what to do with my life, so I went to community college so I didn’t have to waste $20,000 a semester figuring it out. The college I went to, Nassau Community College, offered associates degrees there that didn’t have specific majors. They were just “Associate in Arts” or “Associate in Science”. I started on the “Associate in Science” trek and took a biochem class and a regular chem class. I did well in both but had zero interest in the curriculum. As I read the textbooks to study, I couldn’t imagine myself doing this for another semester, let alone the rest of my life. However, one positive aspect of being in the science classes was that I noticed many of the students had drive; they were more motivated. If they weren’t, they vanished in a week or two.
After the first semester, I switched to Associate in Arts. I knew I was going to declare for history when I transferred to my next school. I had loved history since I was a kid. Reading about it and writing about it for classes was always fun, provided the professor was actually decent (some were awful at NCC, but some were really great). Unfortunately, nearly all the other students in the liberal arts classes I took at NCC didn’t share this enthusiasm. They didn’t take notes. They didn’t do the readings. They didn’t do anything. I remember in a Western Civ II class, the professor grouped us up for a project. The first thing someone uttered in my group was “I don’t do shit for this class, I’m gonna fail.” Yet many these students managed to linger on in the class without dropping it.
Now, you’re likely saying, “What do you expect, it’s a community college!” True, community colleges aren’t known for their academic rigor. However, would you not agree that far more people attend community colleges than attend highly reputable schools? And that, therefore, community college students represent a greater percentage of the nation’s college-going populace than do the student bodies of various high-end schools? I used to lurk on the GradCafe forums (a popular forum for graduate students, current, former, and aspiring). A common phrase there was “Nowhere State University.” It was used to deride those who didn’t go to “good” schools.
I was among the people who attended “nowhere state university,” as much as it pains me to call my school that. I went to Adelphi University. I applied to the usual schools for a Long Islander when my time was running low at Nassau—CW Post, Adelphi, Stony Brook University, and Hofstra. I chose Adelphi because they had an honors college over just an honors program. The honors college had some really brilliant students and professors. The two smartest people I’ve ever met in my life were professors there. I also chose Adelphi because they gave me the most in scholarship money.
However, my classes at Adelphi were split roughly 1/2 and 1/2 between Honors College classes and regular history department classes that fell under the jurisdiction of the college of arts and sciences.
That’s where my views on humanities in college began to become…skewed.
The honors college classes were pretty good. Great quality of teaching, mediocre-great quality of fellow students. The regular classes, while they’d sometimes have flashes of brilliance, generally left something to be desired. Adelphi, outside of the honors college, proved to be community college for kids who had parents with more money to waste. I’ll spare you the details but many of the people in the history classes (that was my major) did NOT want to be there. About 40% were there on requirements (that’s another thing that’s wrong with college, arbitrary requirements so the school can make more money). Another 40% were there because they wanted to be history teachers. The majority of this 40% only wanted to teach because “High school was awesome + summers off and history is the easiest subject to get a degree in.” Now that’s 80% of people in almost every history class I attended who didn’t actually care about the content of the class. They wanted to pick up a requirement or an “easy” degree and cash in.
That still leaves 20%. What was their story? About 15% of these guys were just “I just need any degree and history is easy.” Only 5% were people who legitimately thought history was worth studying.
Now, this may sound (and in fact, be) naive but I applied my experience to the other local colleges. And, from what my friends who have attended them said, I was right to do so. This guy I used to hang out with had a girlfriend who went to college for one year (which cost her $30k) with a major in English. She quit after that one year and has been working at Target ever since.
So, back to my thoughts on college and what’s wrong.
I think we can agree that most students in the country attend a “nowhere state university”? That’s not to insult the typical student or the typical university, it’s just a numbers game. Most students aren’t going to Ivy Leagues, nor are they attending US News’ top-100 colleges.
And the stories of jobless, massively indebted degree-holders are so ubiquitous that you surely can’t deny the fact that obtaining a degree is certainly a questionable endeavour in 2013.
So, the question—in my mind—became this: Did the accessibility of the humanities in college ENABLE these things to happen? Did it enable the non-learners (people who are just there for the piece of paper, nothing else) to do what they did as well? When I asked my friends, they all agreed, especially based off their experiences. I knew I’d catch flak for what I wrote on Thought Catalog, but didn’t expect all the hate-tweets and the like. Of course, what I wrote on Thought Catalog was needlessly inflammatory among many other things and I regret writing it. Still, I’m not sure why certain humanities classes need to exist, and why students need to pay for them. A cynic will say that students need to pay for them because colleges require them so they make more money. I suppose that’s true.
Also, the common retort to “Liberal arts/humanities enable debt” shtick is “well then those people shouldn’t be going to college at all then or should major in something else.” That’s true but the notion that college is important is still far too pervasive in society for people to forgo getting a degree. Furthermore, at least where I’m from, people look down on the “lesser” professions like electrician and plumber even though those careers are fine money-wise. This stigma against jobs like that forces people to go get degrees they don’t need or want, wouldn’t you agree?
How can we fix all this?
I don’t think there’s one panacea that can fix all things wrong with college. A lot of what’s wrong is embedded in society’s views on things, like I said above. I think that in a generation or two, post secondary education’s image will become so tarnished that it will again be socially acceptable not to go there in favor of going to a trade school or whatever else. Colleges, in response to this, will attempt to start offering more helpful/”real” classes to try and regain customers.
“Then why did you write an article saying to ban liberal arts,” you ask?
I didn’t want to ban ALL of them. Most commenters seemed to ignore that I put “almost” in the title. Removing certain majors/classes and thereby gearing schools towards the practical rather than the arcane, in my opinion, would be a decent temporary, short term solution.
Why should STEM majors have to waste time and money on arbitrary requirements like Western Civilization? I love history and it’s nice to think that forcing an engineering major into a Western Civ class would make him historically literate but what if he/she just doesn’t enjoy history? They’ll be dead weight in the class and be miserable at having to do readings (which they won’t do) and write essays (which they’ll mail in/completely BS). The only person who benefits from that is the college who takes the student’s money for that useless experience. Halve or outright remove required humanities courses for STEM majors so they spend less money. This also grants them more time to pursue internships.
But what about people who want to major in West Asian Literature or Theater? This is where it gets trickier. I was definitely wrong to dismiss these things so swiftly in the Thought Catalog article but, at the same time, it’s kind of difficult to justify keeping some of the more esoteric majors and courses in the college. Theater is specialized and requires you to be doing something in-person on a stage, and you can’t just show up at a venue in Broadway and say “Hey! Teach me everything you guys know!” So, in that respect, theater needs to be taught—even if the job prospects might not be bright.
However, certain history and English/literature classes simply can’t justify the price tag, in my opinion. Like I said in the Thought Catalog piece, it seems really weird to pay so much money for a glorified book reading club. Yes, you are getting expert instruction but if you aren’t planning on becoming an historian or a professor yourself, why do you need costly, expert-level instruction? Look, I’m a huge advocate of reading and cultural literacy, but I’m also an advocate of not burning money. People can buy books off Amazon, read them on their own, and then find a forum about it or find free interpretations about the chosen books on the Internet. They can do these things cheaper than the cost of a degree that they won’t use or a requirement that they were forced to take so that the university could bleed them for a little more money. If this offends you, well, leave a comment and I guess we’ll talk some more haha.
Another helpful solution to the college conundrum is putting employment outlook/average wages for ALL majors in HUGE LETTERS on ALL college material (recruitment and whatever else).
Furthermore, I think that colleges suffer from course bloat in general. My first article for Thought Catalog was about that so I won’t type it all again suffice to say that the amount of courses should be declined and replaced with far more internships, read the full idea here.
Apologies if this is a bit long or scattered, it’s a bit stream of consciousness. Please, let me know what you think.
Thanks for reading, everyone!