I WOKE up on Wednesday morning with two routine but pressing jobs to accomplish: I had a column to write, and I had a stack of 20-page papers to grade. The two duties wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with each other. But they do, and what they have in common says something about the value of higher education.
Almost everybody agrees that college costs too much. If a relative handful of relatively rich people want to pay a lot to go to the most exclusive schools, that’s up to them; it’s a victimless crime. But if a good college education costs too much across the board, that’s a major social problem, especially because a college degree has increasingly become a minimum qualification for the kind of job that puts you in the middle class - which is where most Americans, wishfully or not, still imagine themselves to belong. And this all looks worse because the economic crisis has hit many public institutions especially hard.
Some have called this situation a higher-education bubble. Some have begun to investigate what students are really getting out of college for their money. They’re asking necessary questions about curriculum and teaching, and about institutions’ and students’ commitment to academic excellence.
But this vitally important discussion is often hamstrung by a tendency to reduce college to vocational education in the crudest, most unrealistic ways. This kind of reduction often zeroes in on the humanities and parts of the social sciences - together often mislabeled as “the liberal arts’’ (when, in fact, math and science are also part of the liberal arts) - as the most overvalued, least practical aspect of higher education. If you study engineering you can become an engineer, if you study biology or physics you can be a scientist, and if you’re pre-med or pre-law then you can go on to be a doctor or a lawyer. But what kind of job can you get if you study Renaissance art, or Indonesian history, or any kind of literature at all?
It’s a fair question, even when asked unfairly. If Deval Patrick, an English major, was available, I’d let him answer. But he’s busy being governor, so I’ll take a shot at it.
Let’s first defenestrate a mistaken assumption that many students and their parents cling to. Prospective employers frequently don’t really care what you majored in. They might look at where you went to school and how you did, and they will definitely consider whether you wrote a decent cover letter, but they don’t sit there and think, “Anthropology?! We don’t need an anthropologist.’’
They do care that you’re a college graduate. What that means, if you worked hard and did your job properly and your teachers did theirs, is that you have spent four years developing a set of skills that will serve you in good stead in the postindustrial job market. You can assimilate and organize large, complex bodies of information; you can analyze that information to create outcomes that have value to others; and you can express your ideas in clear, purposeful language. Whether you honed these skills in the study of foreign policy or Russian novels is secondary, even trivial. What matters is that you pursued training in the craft of mastering complexity, which you can apply in fields from advertising to zoo management.
The papers on my desk are from a course on the city in literature and film. They’re about, among other things, 9/11 stories, inner-city documentaries, and the literary tradition of Washington, D.C. Instead of worrying about whether you can get paid to know about these topics, consider this: You can’t fake a 20-page paper. Either you’ve done the work this semester and know what you’re talking about, or you don’t. Either you can deliver a sustained reasoned argument, or you can’t. It’s a craft, like cabinet making.
I make my living building such figurative cabinets - like this column, a miniature one I assembled using skills I learned first in school and then honed doing various jobs in the private and public sectors: policy analyst, teacher, reporter, writer, very small businessman. Whatever else happens at college, higher education is about learning to drive the postindustrial nails straight.Carlo Rotella is director of American Studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.