AAC&U News, May 2014

Hooray for "Worthless" Education!


By Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon, March 27, 2014

The belief that earning a degree in the arts and humanities is “the educational equivalent of a scratchers ticket—a little amusing but probably a ridiculous squandering of your money,” is an increasingly common one, says Mary Elizabeth Williams. That perception has only been reinforced by a new report from the website PayScale.com that ranks colleges and universities, and various majors at those institutions, based on net cost versus alumni earnings. Disciplines related to the hard sciences and technology showed the highest return on earnings, while the arts, humanities, and education had the lowest. It’s understandable, Williams says, that people want to know which majors will have the most immediate financial return. “What I am tired of, however, is the near constant message that those of us who haven’t had the inclination or ability to pursue the study of those more lucrative things are big fat failures who threw away our college educations on meaningless frippery like literature and social justice.”

A career in technology or medicine or business is a worthwhile and admirable pursuit, she continues, but other disciplines and vocations have worth, too, and it can be measured in other ways than monetary compensation. “We live in one of the few cultures in the world that has the ideal of pursuing happiness—not industry, not wealth—built into its national character.” Furthermore, learning about the arts and humanities doesn’t necessarily doom one to poverty. Williams cites AAC&U’s report, How Liberal Arts and Science Majors Fare in Employment, which finds that students who major in the liberal arts eventually catch up to and even surpass many preprofessional majors in salary.

As Etsy CEO and proud English major Chad Dickerson has said, “Being successful in a modern society requires a broader understanding of humanity and people.” That’s the benefit of studying the arts, humanities, and social sciences, Williams says—those disciplines cultivate both knowledge of people and the world and an understanding of how to act on that knowledge. “The value of an education,” she continues, “is how well it trains you to think for yourself, including about what you really want to do with your life, and what you truly value.”

Read the full essay at Salon.

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.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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