Are Colleges and Universities Responsible for Students’ Careers? Liberal Arts in the–Oh, Never Mind

Liberal Arts Education in the United States needs all the defense it can get right now. Economically-minded students are passing it up for business and communications, and policy makers want to cut it to make way for “career education programs,” like business and communications. That’s the plan in England, and, however much one might wish it were not so, it could happen here. What the Humanities doesn’t need is another polemic extolling its virtues and intrinsic benefits in its defense. No one expecting the burden of economic recovery and growth to fall on the shoulder of colleges and universities has any interest in discussing “personal growth,” and, honestly, I don’t either. Policy makers and lobbyist don’t want to hear about Shakespeare or Mozart or world history or Gilgamesh, whoever that was; they want to hear about information technologies, the green revolution, and growth industries.

Unfortunately, colleges aren’t any better suited to creating such jobs than the National Governors Association, which seems to miss the irony of its report’s title “Degrees for What Jobs?: Raising Expectations for Colleges and Universities in a Global Economy.” What jobs? Indeed. The numbers, if you care/dare to look, are depressing. The economy lacks either the willingness or ability to create enough jobs to support the labor force, whatever the labor force’s qualifications or lack thereof. Rather than raising the expectation for colleges, perhaps the governors should lower the expectation of the current generation of graduates; it isn’t the degrees’ fault that people need jobs that don’t exist, and revamping them to appeal to non-existent job markets will only pigeonhole students, making them less, not more, able to suit the needs of a global, chaotic economy.

The truth is that unless a student is unusually passionate about a certain field and unusually secure in his or her goals for a college student, majors and concentrations mean very little in the job market. Plans like the NGA’s, and business and communications majors (the curricula, not necessarily the students) seem to miss this point. College doesn’t prepare students for an individual career any better than it equips students to lead fulfilling lives or create lifelong bonds with friends or make their mark on the world or any number of pleasing narratives. Colleges fulfill two purposes in this economy: they centralize and direct knowledge and information, and they provide students who may or may not care about this knowledge and information with a sheepskin class signifier of greater or lesser weight depending on what name is on the stamp.

I can see why rearranging higher education to solve the global economic crisis can seem appealing. The monstrous marketing campaigns of many colleges and universities (designed solely to attract a more of students to pay more tuition) have probably done more to fuel the myth that a college education trains students for successful careers than anyone. Malcolm Harris makes an excellent argument that administrations operating on such models and the government are fueling a bubble. I won’t rehash that here, but one can’t deny the poetic justice of the government destroying higher education to hold it to its misleading promises.

And it’s tough to admit that we simply don’t have enough jobs to employ every qualified employee, so saying “if we train the employees, the jobs will follow” makes enough sense from the political side. Everyone will have moved on to another issue or crisis by the time the economy has proven you wrong, and, anyway, even if the new educational model doesn’t work, if some one can’t find a job it’s his or her own damn fault.

None of this means meddling with higher education is a good idea. Colleges and universities have their own issues to work out in seeing themselves through the death throes of late capitalism, and policy makers who rest their hopes of making it through on higher education are only passing the buck and leaving the hordes of the un-and-under employed on their own.