Reason has a symposium on the future of higher education in its latest issue. For my money, the best contribution comes from Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie, who sounds remarkably Oakeshottian in this passage:
The real existential threat to higher ed comes from folks who conceive of college as a sort of high-end vocational-tech program. Right-leaning critics such as Naomi Schaefer Riley, Richard Vedder, and Charles Murray complain about feel-good majors that don’t help fill the nation’s need for STEM-related graduates. Left-leaning commentators such as Richard Arum, Josipa Roska, and Christopher Newfield fear that college is becoming more expensive for students even as it teaches them little or nothing of value.
These sorts of critiques are wrong for two reasons. First, they assume that education, especially college, should somehow be related to employment. While that has always been an expectation—most of America’s colonial colleges started as seminaries—it long ago stopped being the rule. In a 2011 Pew Research survey, 74 percent of college graduates called the experience “very useful” for their “knowledge and intellectual growth” and 69 percent said it facilitated their “personal growth and maturity.” A relatively puny 55 percent said college was very useful as “preparation for a job or career.”
As the proud possessor of no fewer than four English degrees (a B.A., two M.A.s, and a Ph.D.) who paid my own way through every stage, I think these graduates have it exactly right.
What troglodytes like Florida governor Rick Scott, who wants to subsidize STEM majors, fail to understand is that STEM degrees are private goods if any majors are: they are their own reward. Humanities and social sciences courses, if taught rigorously and well, provide public benefit beyond that to the individual; if anything should be subsidized, it is those courses. (Here I go beyond Nick’s argument, who expressly rejects the view that humanities education creates a better citizen.)
To be sure, liberal arts and social sciences are not necessarily taught well at many universities. But the places that do the best at teaching students how to think and write are the highly selective, challenging liberal arts colleges — places that tend to come in for lots of scorn from conservatives.