My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante

Quote of the Day for Saturday, January 7th, 2012.

Virginia Postrel, posting at Bloomberg yesterday in a piece called How Art History Majors Power the U.S. Economy, on the misguided but largely unexamined tendency of many critics of higher education to apply a supposed realpolitik of utility to the evaluation of programs and curricula, becoming in the process shadows of the smug, short-sighted central planners they typically scorn:

The students who come out of school without jobs aren’t, for the most part, starry-eyed liberal arts majors but rather people who thought a degree in business, graphic design or nursing was a practical, job-oriented credential. Even the latest target of Internet mockery, a young woman the New York Times recently described as studying for a master’s in communication with hopes of doing public relations for a nonprofit, is in what she perceives as a job-training program.
The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino, California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them.

The commentators excoriating today’s students for studying the wrong subjects are pursuing certainty where none exists. Like the health fanatics convinced that every case of cancer must be caused by smoking or a bad diet, they want to believe that good people, people like them, will always have good jobs and that today’s unemployed college grads are suffering because they were self-indulgent or stupid. But plenty of organic chemists can testify that the mere fact that you pursued a technical career that was practical two or three decades ago doesn’t mean you have job security today.
The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.

While Postrel focuses primarily on what we could call the economy of institutional higher education – and makes some excellent points concerning the unexamined potential of unintended consequences stemming from the growing chorus of calls for the marginalization of humanities studies for the sake of promoting technical learning – she opens up some other aspects of the problem as well, which seem lost on most of the respondents in the combox. The whole idea of judging education for its practical utility and economic results reflects a deep poverty of understanding what education is all about – moreover, of what human life is all about. It’s not that I think professional training is not important, just that it’s not education, and it does not serve the economies of either training or education to conflate or confuse them.

One commenter correctly notes that our institutions of higher learning have become outsourced training providers for the business world, and what he doesn’t explicitly add to that is that these training costs are wholly socialized from the perspective of businesses that benefit from it (the costs being moved onto a combination of the trainees, the government [taxpayers], and other grant providers). I would argue a step further: that these institutions have largely been balkanized by ever-increasing federal government funding over the past 65 or so years into production facilities geared to produce an ideologically compliant and functionally useful citizenry supporting the on-going consolidation of the power and wealth of the governing class. This could not be farther from the purposes of education or its institutional manifestation. Going back to Dante would surely be a step in the right direction, though we could always start with Newman.