There are many problems today with a so-called “liberal arts” education. The number of students enrolled in humanities and social science coursework has grown exponentially. A concomitant, precipitous decline in the number of students enrolled in mathematics and the sciences has also occurred. There are good reasons for these phenomena. The societal consequences of this transition will be unhappy at best.
Those students who have abandoned mathematics and the sciences is understandable. These areas of study are rigorous and stressful. Moreover, those who entertain them tend to achieve grade point averages lower than do other students. To the rational, self-interested student, these facts can do no other than militate against the selection of “hard” majors in the sciences.
More attractive to most students are the philosophical and psychological sciences. These majors promote critical thinking, of course, and are of interest. However, in the present market, applicants trained in these disciplines face fierce competition for positions. Far too many have been graduated with degrees in these fields. As such, the marketplace for jobs has become saturated with them. What applicants need is to be different.
The modern world values specialization and technical proficiency. These aforementioned majors tend to provide little of either. As such, the student who devotes his undergraduate career to them will not thereby be empowered to land a well-paid position. This fact was not communicated to me with any force by the academic advisors I have had. Instead, it was encouraged that I, upon completion of my degree, attend graduate or professional school.
This recommendation reveals quite a lot. Indeed, it is an admission that, when studied at the undergraduate level, the aforementioned majors do not prepare one for gainful employment. They seem in fact quite inadequate to that task. Further education and study, then, is required if one is to acquire or secure quality employment.
However, the possession of advanced degrees no longer guarantees one quality, secured employment. That the (academic) marketplace currently suffers an overabundance of doctorates -- especially in the humanities and social sciences – is well-known. Consequently, those who earn such degrees face stiff competition for placement as faculty. By no means is the attainment of a tenure-track position assured (if it is even possible).
Those who major in mathematics or physics, then, are in demand. Their studies have equipped them with the knowledge and skills employers need and want. However, the number of students who have declared said majors has declined. As such, there exists a “mismatch” in the marketplace between the demand and supply of technically adept employees. Is it any wonder, then, that our country has witnessed high unemployment rates? One suspects that things will only get worse and the market will become even more frustrated as a result thereof.
In the interest of disclosure: I have chosen psychology as my major; my minors are mathematics and philosophy. I did not choose a minor in mathematics because I am an unusually gifted mathematician. Rather, I selected that minor because I think advanced numeracy is mandatory in today’s job market. Academic advisors outside the sciences, however, do not impress this fact upon their advisees. Career counselors are even more pathetic and useless and say nothing that I myself do not already know.
It seems, therefore, that a liberal arts education is being “sold” as worthwhile per se. I would suggest otherwise. How, for example, is the student of psychology and sociology to find employment immediately upon graduation? She cannot, at least not readily. When I researched prospective jobs, I found that most required mathematical, scientific or technical acumen. To be conversant in philosophy, while impressive and noble, is not the same. It will not impress employers who demand some familiarity with, say, differential equations.
I am truly upset that no adviser ever confronted me with these facts. If one had, I probably would have selected a “harder” major or minor sooner rather than later. I first declared a minor in mathematics my junior year, and did so only after I researched jobs. As a result, I am required to complete four mathematics courses this year, which will impose a lot of stress and hard work.
My experience shows that, at least at present moment, no dearth of jobs exists for those trained in mathematics and the sciences. I surmise, therefore, that a principal cause of unemployment today is a fundamental and pervasive mismatch: a mismatch between applicants’ and employers’ abilities, expectations and needs. This mismatch has been fostered and perpetuated -- in no small measure, I would say -- by and within the academy.