So What Good Is A Liberal Arts Education Anyway?
By Michael Schreiber
I'M NEW TO Tucson and I'm looking for work. I just graduated from college, I know tons about computers and statistics, I can write, I have good communications skills, etc., etc., etc. In other words, I did what I was supposed to do. I studied hard, got good grades and developed a good work ethic. It seemed to me that I would be a good candidate for a job in any market. I'm so naive. There's a four-foot tall pile of classified sections in my living room, obstructing my view of the television.
The fact is that college graduates these days are in a precarious position. They're under-qualified for most professional and academic positions, yet they're overqualified for the jobs that remain. What does one learn in college anyway? If you're lucky you learn how to think and express your ideas well enough to communicate them to others. While majoring in a field can certainly be thought of as a specialty, getting a B.A. or a B.S. in whatever discipline doesn't make a person a specialist; therefore, the average college graduate who doesn't have an advanced degree is under-qualified to work in his or her field of choice.
For example, the fact that I have a B.A. in psychology doesn't make me a psychologist (which is good news for the mentally ill of the world).
So, where does that leave the well-educated person, who knows how to work hard, who has knowledge of a variety of disciplines, and who is thoughtful about the nature of the work he or she is doing? I'll tell you where. In Tucson, Arizona, without a job.
The Greater Tucson Strategic Economic Plan, published in July 1996 by the Greater Tucson Economic Council (GTEC), states that economic development "focuses of the role of planned economic growth as a means to create wealth, increase wages, create jobs, broaden the tax base, and improve the quality of life in the region."
While the plan states bluntly that the means by which a city can stimulate growth are limited to business attraction, expansion, and retention, it also makes sure to note that economic development must not be confused with community development. According to GTEC, community development is stimulated by factors like healthcare, housing, social services, and yes, education.
But it seems to me quite obvious that if an economic strategy is to be truly effective, then education, like wage levels, must be considered a fundamental component of both community development and economic development, regardless of conceptual discrepancies. Here's why:
The plan clearly states that economic development will be achieved by attracting firms to Tucson, expanding firms that are already here, and keeping them here. In other words, creating more jobs is the way to make this economy boom. What they're saying here is that desirable economic, environmental, and social characteristics will develop as a result of all of these new jobs. Within the plan there's a list of these characteristics for targeted industries. Desirable characteristics include providing high wages, creating local jobs, and being environmentally friendly.
The fifth listed desirable characteristic is that targeted industries "create synergy with colleges, universities, and existing businesses." This suggests that GTEC believes better education will come about as a result of more jobs, but they seem to have overlooked the fact that new jobs are meaningless without a highly skilled workforce to fill them.
While GTEC's plan no doubt has the best of intentions, and has set important and reachable goals with regard to attracting and maintaining business, they have all but ignored employment trends over the last quarter of a century which have seen the workforce become increasingly specialized and technical. Thus, while GTEC cites the attraction of high-tech businesses as a primary goal, who will ensure that the workforce will have the necessary high-tech skills?
The rapid decrease in the number of high-paying manufacturing jobs in Tucson seems to indicate that a shift is occurring in the job market. These manufacturing jobs are turning into highly specialized, yet relatively confined, jobs in technological industries.
Evidence of this can be seen in the growing popularity of technical schools. These schools are providing a valuable service. They're teaching people practical and important skills which are directly transferable to the workplace, while eliminating the elements collegiate education which are rendered superfluous in a modern workplace. Why learn about Rousseau when it doesn't impact the bottom line?
GTEC seems to have forgotten how important a stable workforce is to an economy. And for us, stable means having the skills which provide the most profit for a given business. These days that means that you'd better get your butt to school, specifically a technical school. Within 20 years, a highly skilled, technically oriented workforce will be the norm. These people will in all likelihood not have a college education, but rather a degree from a technical institute. This economy will simply not be able to support the number of liberal-arts oriented bachelor degrees that it's now producing.
Given the path I believe we're already on, I think GTEC needs to consider the degree to which the public is prepared for the coming of new industries. We'll surely be able to attract them if what we've got is attractive. In this case, a much closer interactive relationship between industry and education is necessary if we want to stay one step ahead of the game.
I'm out of luck. I've got a bunch of skills which the job market considers irrelevant, and the skills which would get me a job would undoubtedly mean a step backwards academically. The solution is a double-edged sword: A successful workforce will be highly technical and specialized, but not particularly interdisciplinary.
And while I believe that staying ahead of the game is a good thing, I also believe there are some long-term benefits that come with a liberal arts education--like learning things which become personally significant, developing views on a variety of topics, and living a generally less mundane life.
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