There is a belief that will not die. Many have driven a stake through its heart and yet it survives.
What is this UnDead Belief that Will Not Die?
It is the belief that studying the arts and humanities gets you nothing but a big vocabulary and arcane facts helpful when playing pub quizzes. And yes, and also an enormous debt and a chronic incapacity to find decent paid employment.
And yet, study after study disproves that UnDead Belief time and time again.
Last week, AGAIN, there was an article in the New York Times* of how a liberal arts education benefits writing software. Of how the complex patterns, nuance and analysis that underlie the liberal arts foster a creative perspective on problem solving in a way that learning algorithms does not. Of how the grounding of our thinking in both the humanities and the sciences is the path to a more prosperous future. (*To Write Software, Read Fiction by J. Bradford Hipps 24 May 2016)
Admittedly, engineers earn more money. According to How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment by Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly (2014), engineers max out at an average of $98,000, while hard-done-by arts and humanities have to struggle through on a mere average income of $66,000. According to the 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index, the graduates with the highest level of engagement with their employment and serious commitment to and enthusiasm for their jobs were from the top 50 liberal arts colleges. It seems it’s not just love that money can’t buy.
And yes, unemployment straight out of uni is higher at over 3% versus less than 2% for STEM students. And liberal arts unempoyment stays sticky high at 3%. Gosh, but that 3% must keep you awake at night. Obviously, their jobs are rarely - if ever - in their field of study. Engineering produces engineers. Accountancy produces accountants. Liberal arts grads do everything under the sun. I suspect that if they're bright enough to get a liberal arts undergrad degree, then they're bright enough to have figured out their employment prospects as well.
A case in point: My brother is married to someone with a PhD in rhetoric. She now works in the environmental movement focused on the health impact of global warming, which is a weave of science, communication, and activism.
I don’t expect any of this information to make any difference to our abiding denigration of studying the arts and humanities. Partially, this is our lack of understanding of what it offers. As fewer and fewer study the liberal arts its status declines through lack of experience. But it's more than that. We live in testing times, literally. The school system is addicted to standardized testing, which reflects our society’s demands and values. I’m not hostile to tests, exams or judging students’ abilities. But standardized testing flourishes in the STEM topics and struggles to be meaningful in the humanities. It cannot adequately test the application of knowledge from one area to another. Or test the quality of the learning experience gained from engaging with a narrative. Or test creative thinking.
Yet the creative interplay of critical thinking is what our high standard of living is based on. We are no longer the drawers of water and hewers of wood. We shake our heads sorrowfully at the decline of industrial manufacturing, while refusing to acknowledge that the engine of our present and future economy is simultaneously highly creative and highly analytical. And the best way to gain the skills to marry those two is through a much maligned arts and humanities degree.
I like money. I like it so much that I want more. And I want my children to have more still. So for their sake, I keep driving a stake through the zombie belief that the only education worth pursuing is in the STEM topics.