Editor's note: This article is a part of a head-to-head. Read the other article here.
As many states question the role of liberal arts degrees in publicly-funded schools, legislators and academics discuss what the consequences of removing these degree programs from public universities might entail.
It seems at the center of these discussions is a pressing question: should states reduce education to focus on post-graduate earnings? In other words, should we value STEM or business degrees as the peak of higher-education simply because the recipients of these degrees earn more after graduation?
The argument assumes that an education subsidized by the state should only focus on degrees with the highest monetary return. Under this proposed solution to limited public spending, liberal arts degrees are first on the chopping block.
While some may say the answer to this issue is clear, I’m not sure those who nay-say the importance of liberal arts at public universities comprehend the implications of their proposed solution. Consequences are often unforeseeable, and as The New York Times reports, not everyone is so sure that reducing funding for liberal arts is a surefire economic strategy.
“We are not good at predicting what jobs are going to be required in five years and 10 years down the road,” said Debra Humphreys, senior vice president at the Association of American Colleges.
With the development of newer and faster technology, it’s possible society will soon value critical thinking and communication — skills garnered by liberal arts students — over degrees focusing on specific technical fields, such as finance or accounting.
It’s true that degree recipients in the humanities and liberal arts traditionally make less than other degree recipients. However, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported in 2016 that the projected salary for someone with a bachelor's degree in the humanities was $46,065, only around $6,000 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree in business.
The wage disparity is not as dramatic as some may assume. Instead of under-funding liberal arts programs, universities should fund seminars based on post-grad information to ensure liberal art students know which jobs they should apply for.
If public universities did cut-off funding for liberal arts degrees, then a class-based economy of knowledge would result. Only those with enough money to afford education from private universities would have access to degrees in social sciences, humanities or other liberal arts. Most states tout large public universities as affordable education for people without the monetary ability to attend specialized private schools. Without accessible degrees in liberal arts, states send the message that only the rich should have access to that information.
The University should not only keep funding the liberal arts, but allocate more money into these fields. There was once a time when the University was a prominent school for academics studying the humanities and social sciences.
In the 1930s, the University housed renowned literary critics Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. Together their work at the University had massive influence in the development and popularization of New Criticism, a popular theory for literary critics of the time. Robert Lowell, a respected figure in American poetry, studied at the University at this time as well.
In 1987, the University opened the Eric Voegelin Institute to honor the German-born political theorist, who taught at the University from 1942 to 1958 after being fired from the University of Vienna for opposing the ideas of Adolf Hitler. Hubert Humphrey, who served as Vice President during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, received a graduate degree in political science from the University.
If the University were to stop funding liberal arts education, the result would be a devaluing of the University’s past advancements in these fields. The rich academic history of the University should not be boxed up to collect dust and be forgotten.
These programs deserve more funding, if for no other reason than to commemorate the work of these men. As a region enamored with its own past of violence and hatred, why does the South seem so placated in its remembrance of academic thought?
In his commencement address to Kenyon College’s class of 2005, writer David Foster Wallace said liberal arts education “isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” Wallace’s speech covered the topic of empathy and conscious thought.
But before you deride this as a frivolity, remember what political theorist Hannah Arendt said in her analysis of Nazi officer and Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann. Arendt didn’t characterize Eichmann as evil. She described him as simply "unthinking."
In 2019, the prospect of unthinking men and women is the default. As I read the impersonal and banal manner in which people are dehumanized on the internet and hear reports of violence in Charlottesville, I can’t help but think we need the liberal arts now more than ever.
Michael Frank is a 22-year-old political science and English senior from New Orleans, Louisiana.