Should We Abolish Liberal Arts Degrees?

Inquires Timmy. But its a stupid question. Indeed, a curiously illiberal anti-business not-really-thought-through question. The premiss is the usual one: the degrees aren't useful, they are a hangover from the old days, they aren't value-for-money, and they don't teach people what business wants them taught.

But of course what they do give you, even if you believe all that, is a piece of paper that allows employers to value you.

One solution is just to say, aha, universities are just convenient traps for the initiativeless, whilst those with va-voom get on with making their way in biznis. In which case, if you're one of those with initiative, what have you got to whinge about?

Another solution, if you believe all that, is to talk to the employers, not the students or the people running the universities. Suggest that they run recruitment fairs in high schools, not in universities.

For myself I think its nonsense to suggest that 18 year olds can pick up university level maths just from books. And the lectures I attended didn't consist of people reading out textbooks. And I doubt the idea applies to other subjects, either.


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It is a stupid question for a far more fundamental reason than the merely economic reasons you adduce. The assumption of the question is that economic value is the only relevant value - that humans are economic units only. That assumption is not only absurd, but pernicious.

[Well, yes, agreed. But I was trying to show that even in its own narrow terms it was wrong -W]

By Tom Curtis (not verified) on 01 Sep 2012 #permalink

Steve Jobs said that the ultimate root of the Microsoft slide was that it had no liberal arts in it, and that Gates was in the end just another businessman.

Timmie needs to write a column about the myriad obvious benefits of abolishing libertarianism.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 01 Sep 2012 #permalink

Unfortunately, that is the direction universities are taking. Instead of creating minds that think, they create drones ready to service the system. Whatever will be, will be.

Philosophy is the single most important topic.

Disclosure: my degrees are in (1) Engg. (2) EE (3) Engg. Sci. & Maths

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 01 Sep 2012 #permalink

Chris Monckton appears to have done well for himself, Richard Courtney has a fine Diploma and Willard Anthony Watts has prospered even without a college degree of any sorts,

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 01 Sep 2012 #permalink

The question is which liberal arts/social science areas the ones that existed 60 years ago or the ones invented for political correctness reasons (the various studies programs). So History, Philosophy, the various languages, and the traditional social science areas of Sociology, Psychology and the like which have a rigorous requirement of statistics could continue. In this of course you also include the sciences which at many schools is part of the liberal arts (If you have a broad enough set of courses you can get in PBK with such a degree).

One thing I have always said is that a college degree (of any kind) teaches you two things:

1) How to write
2) How to thing (although, given internet content, I am rethinking this).

They also reveal something about personal character: the ability to persevere though hard work and an incredible amount of bullshit.

[I've got a degree and I never learnt how to thing :-))) -W]

By Rattus Norvegicus (not verified) on 01 Sep 2012 #permalink

Sadly, it seems we are on the way to just this. Pay attention to ads for many schools and see how often "preparing you for a career" - or something equivalent - occurs, and compare that to how often wording refers to "education".

The "liberal" in "liberal arts", back in the Old Days, meant "free" - this was the course of study for free men - in other words, people who weren't serfs.

Later, the audience expanded with more leisure time for students, but the goal remained the same: to educate - to make a man (women came only later) who was versed in the classics, could play at least one instrument, speak at least three languages (his own, Latin, and Greek), and write poetry that was better than the Vogon's.

In other words, a man who "knew stuff", could put it together, and hold up his end of a conversation on almost any topic.

A liberal arts education is what makes us interesting people, not just drones clacking away on keyboards.

Eli Rabett: True, Monckton &c have done well without the benefit of University. So have Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But men like that are rarer than hen's teeth. The rest of us have to be dragged to reading Homer or Thoreau.

One could argue that most of the liberal arts degrees awarded are redundant to the extent that they provide nothing more than what one would, in an ideal world, regard as the bare minimum of literacy to which anyone, artist, scientist, engineer or suit, should aspire.

One need only consider, for example how many of those involved in the Early Music movement in the 1960's and 1970's, at Cambridge and elsewhere, were actually reading music, and how many came to it through university societies.

Of course, one still needs some degrees to be awarded in order to train those who will teach the rest, but that's probably considerably fewer than at present.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 03 Sep 2012 #permalink

I'm more in the science and tech departments of the university, but would dearly hate to see the Liberal Arts go away, Essayists like Mr Worstall (who poses as a libertarian but is really just a free-market fundamentalist) seem more and more like people who don't know the difference between price and value. We used to call those people cynics, now I think the proper label is right-winger, in the non-ice hockey sense.