March 2012
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How Art History Majors Power the Economy

Virginia Postrel, Bloomberg, January 5, 2012

When the economy slumps and college graduates struggle to find work, everyone turns on the art history majors. Misguided pundits recommend cutting funding for the humanities, arguing that in a free market only the most useful, job-producing majors will survive on college campuses and the resulting graduates will be more likely land jobs, says Bloomberg News columnist Virginia Postrel. One problem with this view, she says, is that most college students are already studying “practical” subjects like business, economics, and the STEM fields. Furthermore, “starry-eyed liberal arts majors” also play important roles in a diversified economy.

“A tremendous amount of value arises from pleasure and meaning—the stuff of art, literature, psychology, and anthropology,” Postrel says. “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.”

Whereas the technical skills students learn in college may soon be obsolete, or devalued by the job market (as has happened with recently graduated architecture majors, who have an unemployment rate of 13.9 percent), the ability to learn efficiently will serve students well throughout their lives and careers—and that’s something you can learn in any field, Postrel says. She points to a computer programmer friend, who has seen operating systems come and go but remains well-served by the mathematical concepts and analytical thinking skills he learned in college. The pundit who would push students toward a limited number of job-oriented majors “misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.”

Read the full essay at Bloomberg.


The articles featured in AAC&U News Perspectives do not necessarily represent the views of AAC&U staff, its board of directors, or its membership.