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Are the days of liberal arts majors numbered?

Rochester Business Journal
May 31, 2013

For those of you who, like me, read Chaucer, Shakespeare and Thoreau, dabbled in differential calculus and English history, studied Plato or dissected a fetal pig, the news is upsetting but not surprising.
 
The value of a liberal arts education, long considered the solid foundation for an educated person, has been re-examined by some self-styled experts and downgraded.
 
Fewer collegians are choosing liberal arts majors, and the outlook is ominous for those who do.
 
Graduates with that traditional background are not attractive candidates for jobs in an age when the emphasis is on science, technology, engineering and math.
 
One gloomy analyst made this observation:
 
"Would-be liberal arts majors must face the reality that one of their few hopes for a future job is to teach their subject to the next generation and that competition for the few such specialized positions is going to be very intense."
 
I was an English major, in a program that stressed reading the great poets, novelists and playwrights, as well as writing essays and reports. I learned many things I haven't forgotten, but while it may have prepared me for adulthood, it didn't stress any marketable skills.
 
I learned my craft on the job and was fortunate to have that first opportunity, hired by an editor who must have detected something and was willing to take a chance.
 
English majors? Does any human resources specialist want them today?
 
My favorite comment about English majors was in the classic 1973 movie "Bang the Drum Slowly." Dutch Schnell, manager of the New York Mammoths, played by Vincent Gardenia, has suddenly learned that his catcher, Bruce Pearson, played by Robert DeNiro, is seriously ill. In the midst of a close pennant race, Dutch phones his former catcher, Red Traphagen, who is retired and teaching at a small college in the Midwest. He pleads with Traphagen to come back and "steady the catching."
 
Traphagen says he cannot because he has classes to teach.
 
"Teach?" says Dutch. "Whaddaya teach?"
 
"English," replies Traphagen.
 
"English?" answers Dutch. "What English? Everybody already speaks English."
 
I opened my college yearbook to see what were some of the major studies of my classmates. Here is a brief list of the favorites: history, economics, English, biology, French, art history, psychology and philosophy. Some went to graduate school while others were hired in various jobs.
 
One fraternity brother majored in Greek, and I always wondered how he would use that. He ended up owning a major manufacturer of fishing tackle.
 
Things are far different today, and that fact is reflected in a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education on degrees conferred in 2009-10. The study reported on 1,650,014 degrees in various areas, but there was no reference to the number of those who were successful in finding jobs. As has been widely reported, job opportunities for recent graduates are considered scarce in today's economy.
 
By far the largest category for new degrees was business, management, marketing and related services, with 357,354 graduates. That number dwarfed all other classifications, probably because each of those graduates dreams of a career as a corporate kingpin. The only other areas that had totals in six figures were social sciences, 137,582; health professions and related clinical sciences, 129,634; and education, 101,265.
 
We can conclude that the education category was primarily teachers and that health professions represented nurses and various technicians, as well as those destined to attend graduate schools. Social sciences is more difficult to define.
 
There were 53,231 English majors, twice as many women as men. It was gratifying to observe that English-the language that Dutch Schnell rightly noted everyone already speaks-still outranked foreign languages, literatures and linguistics, which totaled 21,516.
 
There is a separate grouping of 45,953 for liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities, which, when combined with English and foreign languages, presents a respectable total. If you tack on history, philosophy, physics and a few other classic disciplines, you can attain a somewhat formidable number.
 
Recent graduates are now in the job market, and if you are looking to interview and hire some promising talent to add to your staff, take a moment to consider the liberal arts majors. They could be described as generalists in an era when the emphasis is on specialists. But "general" and "liberal" aren't naughty words. Those are the people who, among various abilities, know how to construct a proper paragraph.
 
That sounds like a basic skill, but not everyone can do it.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.


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