Psst: study what you want

Hot on the heels of my post yesterday about rhetoric and valuation in higher education, Steven Pearlstein has an article today for the Washington Post that gets at similar questions from a different angle: parental pressure to get a “practical” degree.

When I assigned an 800-page biography of Andrew Carnegie for a new undergraduate course on wealth and poverty at George Mason University a few years ago, I wasn’t sure the students would actually read it. Not only did most of them make it to the end, however, but many thanked me for giving them the chance to read a popular work of history. Curious, I inquired how many were history majors. Of the 24 honors students in the seminar, there were none. English? Philosophy? Fine arts? Only one. How was this possible? I asked. Almost in unison, half a dozen replied: “Our parents wouldn’t let us.”

The results were similar when I surveyed freshmen in another honors seminar this spring. This time, I asked how many would have been humanities majors if the only criteria were what they were interested in and what they were good at. Ten of the 24 raised their hands.

There is room for all sorts in the modern college. I am deeply suspicious of highly”pre-professional” courses of study, but even allowing for them, there really is a wonderful breadth of possibility on our modern campuses. It’s a tragedy, then, to see genuine interest among our students snuffed out by the amorphous pressure of “marketability”.

I certainly got that sense when I buttonholed students and parents at an information session this spring for high school seniors who had been accepted to Mason. “To spend $80,000 on a history degree, I’d need to see a way forward” to a career, said Kyle Tucker of Fredericksburg, Va., as he stood with his son in the long line in front of the engineering school’s booth.

Again we see how the escalating sticker price of higher education—a consequence of declining public funding—changes the terms of debate. There is little space for a university campus to be a place for free, deep, reflective thought about the world when education is framed as seeking a return on investment.

In any case, as Pearlstein argues, the choice between what you want to study and what will make you the big bucks is never as clear as it seems. Smart people are in demand in all kinds of ways.

Economics is in an interesting place in the alleged dichotomy between the practical and the pointless. Our discipline is a big methodological tent, and our reputation as notorious colonists of other disciplines’ turf works to our advantage. We contain high quality quantitative training, preparing students to engage in sophisticated data collection and analysis. We contain big, interdisciplinary thinking about the systems and history of the world. We contain deeply technical mathematics and deeply critical writing. We are very well placed to house students torn between two poles.

Paul Samuelson once wrote:

What sex is to the biology classroom, stocks and investment riskiness is to the sophomore economics lecture hall. That chapter on personal finance, put there to keep hard-boiled MIT electrical engineers awake, helped make introductory economics the largest elective course at hundreds of colleges.

If this kind of bait-and-switch is the sin we must commit to save some of our students from burning out on degree subjects they were pressured into taking in the first place, then so be it!

I’ll leave the (appropriate) last word to Pearlstein:

So here’s what I’d say to parents who, despite all the evidence, still believe that liberal arts majors waste four years contemplating the meaning of life: At least those passionate kids won’t make the mistake of confusing the meaning of life with maximizing lifetime income.

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