February 19, 2013

The Case For Removing (Almost) All Liberal Arts From College

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There’s something severely wrong with postsecondary education in the United States.

That something might be liberal arts.

Don’t rush to the comments to slander this idea just yet.

Think back to several weeks ago when the spring semester started for millions of American college students. What did their Facebook statuses say? Were they extoling the virtues of their education in the form of lovely disquisitions about how their time at college was an intellectual renaissance that they’d remember until the end of time? Or were they simply posting venomous barbs about how they hated college and never wanted to go back?

For almost all people, the answer is the latter. The average college-goer is a person who’s there for any other reason but to learn. They’re there for partying or simply because society said they had to be there — college is a must, a 21st-century rite of passage. These people don’t do any of the assigned readings, don’t pay attention in class, and are unfit to be in a classroom.

Postsecondary education isn’t for these people. Yet they enroll in droves across all the nation’s campuses.

Liberal arts majors are partially to blame for this phenomenon.

This particular incarnation of the famous “College Freshman” meme illustrates this point. The hypothetical freshman tries his hand at pre-med in the first semester only to change to a pitifully easy (and generally worthless) major in communications. When intellectual cravens flee from STEM majors they often find refuge in “easy” liberal arts degrees. If those degrees were removed, those people would batten down their mental hatches and major in something useful, or they’d pursue building worthwhile skills outside of Academia; they’d become plumbers and electricians instead of miserable, cash-strapped, debt-laden retail workers.

If someone can’t handle the STEM majors (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for those who aren’t familiar with the acronym), they have no business in college. While this sounds unnecessarily harsh, the realities of the 21st century world make it true.

In the days before the Internet, Amazon, and the Kindle, obtaining large collections of books, being able to discuss them with like-minded people, and receiving guidance about proper interpretations of said books wasn’t as easy as it is today. If you wanted to study history in 1920, it was best that you sought out a university and obtained a degree there. If you want to study history in 2013, order whatever books interest you off Amazon and engage in historiographical discussions via Internet forums—no need to pay $40,000 or more for a degree that gains you nothing.

This principal holds true for nearly every other kind of liberal arts major that there is. It’s truly absurd that a student is expected $X per credit hour for a class on early 20th century American Literature when they can read the same materials and have the same talks for the cost of a few used books and an internet connection.

“But you can say the same thing about the STEM majors though,” you say?

That may be true for some of the easier aspects of those majors. However, as students delve further and further into the content of the STEM majors, universities/colleges become increasingly necessary. The axioms and principles in these majors are sufficiently difficult that they require expert explanation and carefully crafted prowess, the kind that can only be found at an accredited institution. The linguistic intricacies in Rappaccini’s Daughter cannot make the same claim.

Unfortunately, most people haven’t figured this out yet. These unfortunate souls are raised with the antiquated notion that a college diploma is the shield that guards their futures from unemployment and the middle-class purgatory of the cubicle jungle. Four years later they graduate and realize that they’ve been had. The Dean and the College President have duped students like the Carpenter and Walrus duped oysters.

This isn’t to deride books or poetry or artwork. The world wouldn’t be worth living in without those things. It’s just that the world has evolved past the point of needing to pay outrageous sums of money to read and talk about a topic for 3-4 months — which is essentially what the average liberal arts course is. If you want to learn about literature/art/history/etc., research what the best books are on the Internet, buy the books, read them, and then find a forum about it. STEM topics are different. They require electron microscopes, massive telescopes, and atom-smashers. Such things can’t be easily obtained by single individuals, but they can be found on college campuses. This — as well as the fact that STEM majors can find decent (or any) employment easier — justifies the degree’s price tag.

There are two possible fates for the American postsecondary education system. One is for it to maintain its current status as a factory that produces debt-slaves and baristas that can recite Emmanuel Kant’s passages from memory. The other is for Universities and Colleges to become leaner, more-functional institutions that remove all unnecessary coursework, and focus only on what matters. TC mark

Matt Saccaro

Matt Saccaro has reached millions of readers with his work on Salon, The Week, The Daily Dot, Thought Catalog, …

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