Virginia Postrel takes on typical arguments about worthless college majors

Virginia Postrel counters arguments that many American college students are studying subjects that don’t matter and won’t help them find a job:

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, humanities majors account for about 12 percent of recent graduates, and art history majors are so rare they’re lost in the noise. They account for less than 0.2 percent of working adults with college degrees, a number that is probably about right for recent graduates, too. Yet somehow art history has become the go-to example for people bemoaning the state of higher education.

A longtime acquaintance perfectly captured the dominant Internet memes in an e-mail he sent me after my last column, which was on rising tuitions. “Many people that go to college lack the smarts and/or the tenacity to benefit in any real sense,” he wrote. “Many of these people would be much better off becoming plumbers — including financially. (No shame in that, who’re you gonna call when your pipes freeze in the middle of the night? An M.A. in Italian art?)”…

The higher-education system does have real problems, including rising tuition prices that may not pay off in higher earnings. But those problems won’t be solved by assuming that if American students would just stop studying stupid subjects like philosophy and art history and buckle down and major in petroleum engineering (the highest-paid major), the economy would flourish and everyone would have lucrative careers…

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 American economy is large and difficult to describe. It is a complex system where there are lots of educated and uneducated workers trying to fill a lot of different job slots. Simple answers on either side are not the solution in helping people to understand what is really going on. If there are lots of jobs in certain fields that need to be filled, like technical trades or nursing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every student should suddenly go in that direction. I wonder if this is all tied to the Sportscenter-ization of discussion.

I wonder if someone has tracked whether these sorts of discussions happen in good economic times. In other words, when the economy is good and unemployment is low, do many people worry about what majors college students are pursuing or does it not really matter?

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