Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Did you major in liberal arts? You may be the 21st-century equivalent of a blacksmith

 I grew up in a small western Oklahoma town where middle-class families worked at jobs that no longer exist. People owned their own gas stations in those days, and a man could make a modest living by selling gasoline (regular or ethyl), repairing cars, and fixing flats. 

I recall two appliance stores in the little town of Anadarko: Zerger's Appliances and Roberts' TV and Appliances.  Two families owned gift shops: Graham's and Lovell's.  

And there were 10 or 12 little grocery stores in my hometown. Everyone lived within walking distance of at least one. These were mostly run by widows who supplemented their modest Social Security checks by selling milk, bread, and canned goods in the front room of their homes. And soda pop. As a kid, I'm sure I bought at least one Grapette at every one of those little stores.

All these businesses are long gone--wiped out by Walmart and corporatism in general. 

Something similar is happening in the field of liberal arts. People who get college degrees in the humanities, liberal arts, or the social sciences will find it damned difficult to find a job. And people who went into debt to get a degree in comparative religions or sociology may have committed financial suicide on the day they selected their majors. 

People who get Ph.Ds in those fields are not likely to find jobs either--at least not teaching jobs at the university level. As the New York Times reported today, colleges across the country are slashing budgets in response to the coronavirus pandemic. And they are laying off faculty members--both tenured and untenured. Most of those laid-off faculty members teach in the liberal arts.

Not too long ago, tenured faculty members had rock-solid job security. Unless they committed a violent felony or said something unforgivable like "All Lives Matter," they could be assured of keeping their job until they tottered off to a comfortable retirement, made possible by a fat pension and lifetime health insurance.

But no more. Universities are enrolling fewer students, and those students are more likely to major in business than the humanities. Professor Whatshisname still teaches his seminar on the causes of the Crimean War (his dissertation topic), but nobody wants to borrow tuition money to listen to his lecture.

In his cautionary book about going to law school, Paul Campos warned against the snowflake syndrome.  You may think you are special.  You may think you will beat the odds and find a great job at a prestigious university, where you will teach fawning students all about the progressive era in American history. Or you will teach English while you write the great American novel.

But you won't. If you pursue a doctorate in liberal arts intending to become a professor, you are probably on a fool's errand. Like the blacksmith of yesteryear, no one will want to hire you. And if you borrowed money to pursue your foolish dream--you are a dead person walking--at least in terms of your financial wellbeing.




2 comments:

  1. Fine article as always, thanks.
    Liberal arts majors are fine for wealthy kids, but dangerous for anyone else.
    I would like to see much more aggressive action on student debt for liberal arts:

    a. make it much easier to declare bsnkrupty -- everyone deserves a second chance

    b. stop making so many new loans (at least $100 billion a year)

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  2. Yes, student-loan debtors need easier access to the bankruptcy courts. In my view, that is the essential reform for getting relief to people who can't pay back their loans.

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