Well, not entirely backwards, since he’s sympathetic to college graduates who can’t find jobs. This, of course, might have something to do with a political establishment that tolerates greater than eight percent U3 (‘strict’) unemployment. But I digress.
In his recent NYT op-ed, Bruni argues that we produce too many humanities majors and not enough scientists (boldface mine):
Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.
I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.
The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.
Leaving aside the reality that most college graduates aren’t humanities majors–the graduate employment problem is more fundamental than that–what Bruni doesn’t understand is that a humanities major or liberal arts degree was never a good investment in terms of job or ‘pre-doctoral’ training. College graduates in the humanities rarely went on to be scholars or teachers. I know several investment banker/stockbroker types who were humanities majors. And if they didn’t do that, they went into business–this was before ‘business’ was an actual major. You were smart, you could write, and someone would be willing to show you the ropes. The latter has been outsourced to universities in the form of the business major*.
The problem with a college education is not that it is ‘useless’, but that it costs too much for what you’re getting. If it didn’t saddle many graduates with massive debt, it would be a good thing. Unlike fifty years ago (and the model hasn’t changed much), working a minimum wage job in the summer and part-time can’t put you through school anymore. So it’s not the education that’s at issue, it’s the debt.
The other problem is the supposed lack of utility of humanities degrees. Being an biology major back when I was a wee’un, the impish part of me appreciates snark like “The Only Thing That Can Stop This Asteroid is Your Liberal Arts Degree.” But a surplus liberal arts degrees aren’t why companies are importing computer scientists and the like. They are doing this because it’s cheaper and younger labor. Employers don’t want older technology workers, in part due to age bias (thirty year-olds don’t want to hire 55 year olds). They also think older workers will want (or need) higher wages. And older workers, unlike those who residency status depends on their employment, will be more ‘troublesome.’ That is, refuse to be treated like shit.
Finally, we’re not limited by technology workers. From the AP (boldface mine):
In the last year, they were more likely to be employed as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined (100,000 versus 90,000). There were more working in office-related jobs such as receptionist or payroll clerk than in all computer professional jobs (163,000 versus 100,000). More also were employed as cashiers, retail clerks and customer representatives than engineers (125,000 versus 80,000).
According to government projections released last month, only three of the 30 occupations with the largest projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor’s degree or higher to fill the position — teachers, college professors and accountants. Most job openings are in professions such as retail sales, fast food and truck driving, jobs which aren’t easily replaced by computers.
This is not an educational failure. This is an employment and wage failure, combined with employers who want cheap and pliant labor. Besides, if we double the number of computer science majors that graduate annually, we’ll just have a glut once growth in that field levels off. Because that’s never happened before.
There’s nothing wrong with the humanities.
*The business major, as far as I can tell, is just a poor version of an economics major.