What are you going to do with that?

What are you going to do with that?

This question might be the death of the humanities (and our civilization). Helicopter parenting has landed on campus, and the result is that little Bobby can’t major in history. God help Bobby and the rest of us.

Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post and George Mason University addresses this problem in an excellent article entitled, “Meet the Parents Who Won’t Let Their Children Study Literature.” The impetus for the article is the “disturbing amount of parental pressure against the liberal arts.”

Parents are legitimately worried about the ROI of a degree in English or history. College is expensive and Bobby needs to get on with this adulting thing ASAP. Sally majored in business and landed this lucrative internship at Verizon. Her parents are proud. I get it.

However, Bobby’s officious parents may be letting him down big time by focusing on the short-term anticipated return of a professional program. What if the pre-professional major Bobby picked doesn’t orientate him towards the Good? To what is Bobby going to turn if things don’t go his way? What if Bobby finds accounting to be totally dreadful or his job replaced by automated Dilberts?

Pearlstein notes these possibilities and laments the college-as-trade-school paradigm.

For me, there’s nothing more depressing than meeting incoming freshmen at Mason who have declared themselves as accounting majors. They’re 18 years old, they haven’t had a chance to take a course in Shakespeare or evolutionary biology or the history of economic thought, and already they’ve decided to devote the rest of their lives to accountancy. It’s worth remembering that at American universities, the original rationale for majors was not to train students for careers. Rather, the idea was that after a period of broad intellectual exploration, a major was supposed to give students the experience of mastering one subject, in the process developing skills such as discipline, persistence, and how to research, analyze, communicate clearly and think logically. (emphasis mine)

What Pearlstein is getting at here is that the college-as-trade-school paradigm has corrupted the purpose of higher education. It has been said that a liberal arts education is like a rose; it is beautiful and good for its own sake. It has inherent worth. Education for vocation, otherwise known as trade school, is more like a shovel. The value of the shovel is revealed only with proper use.

The liberally educated college graduate may succeed in a number of professions, but her success, or lack thereof, does not add to nor detract from her liberal education. She has the rose and is better for it.

The reality is too few parents, students, and administrators value the rose. Addressing that problem is beyond the scope of Pearlstein’s article. Pearlstein enters the college-as-trade-school paradigm and offers these points to the humanities-skeptic parent.

  1. One study found that only 27 percent of people have jobs that are substantially related to their college majors.
  2. Any college degree is likely to lead to a middle-class income.
  3. Students who aren’t intrinsically motivated to study a subject are more likely to fail.
  4. An innovative and curious mind can’t be outsourced, but work by lower-level programmers, engineers, and lawyers can be.

If those points weren’t convincing, Pearlstein closes with this.

So here’s what I’d say to parents who, despite all the evidence, still believe that liberal arts majors waste four years contemplating the meaning of life: At least those passionate kids won’t make the mistake of confusing the meaning of life with maximizing lifetime income.


Stated differently, humanities majors already possess the rose. Everything else is just the difference between a Ford and a Lincoln.

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