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Our Night Watch: Liberal Education, the Humanities, and Earnings

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Co-authored with Molly Nesbit, Professor of Art and Chair of Art, Vassar College

The Obama administration's proposal to include some measure of graduates' earnings in a rating of higher education has ignited a heated debate about the purpose of an education, and in particular the value of a liberal education.

The two extreme positions on the purpose of a liberal education that have been articulated miss a common middle ground that many would support. At one extreme, education is seen as a financial investment, larger than almost any other a family will make, and as such must earn a positive return in terms of increased earnings to justify it, and the bigger the better. Some of the earnings anxiety surrounding higher education arises from concerns about the growth of student debt burdens. The College Board, however, reports the average total loan burden for those who borrow is $26,500 ($15,800 for all graduates), and the higher expected earnings from a B.A. more than justify this investment. At the other extreme, education has nothing to do with getting a job, but is only about learning to think and being prepared to lead a life of meaning and inquiry.

Neither of these positions is defensible. Let's start with the easier one: Earnings and a job don't matter. This is of course silly, unless you are of some order or community committed to a life of poverty, or independently wealthy. In our society, basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and health care are not necessarily guaranteed, despite a significant social safety net. No one should suggest that these things do not matter to people's well-being.

This doesn't mean that our well-being always improves as our earnings go up, or that the value of an education can be measured only by money. While earnings matter, they are not everything or even most important. One of the real benefits of higher education is its rich curriculum: It gives one options to find the human reward in one's chosen path, in work that brings satisfaction and self-worth. A former colleague, Professor Henry Bruton, one of the first development economists and one of the first to focus on the importance of work to well-being, criticized fellow economists for how they talked about work as purely a means to an end (either buying goods and services or leisure). He instead argued that it was the source of well-being, and that a major role of government was to help create the conditions in society that let people find satisfying life work.

A major in art history has, somewhat ironically or simplistically, become the "poster child" for both sides of this debate. President Obama's comments and subsequent apology about the value of an art history major, plus his recent statements on Crimea -- staged in the Rijksmuseum with Rembrandt's The Night Watch in the background -- are examples. The ownership of art has become a flashy sign of power, understood as financial success; at the same time, art's masterpieces and geniuses mark the very pinnacle of creativity and human achievement.

Art history has long been a point of contact between many fields: social and political history, linguistics, literary theory, ancient and modern languages, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, religion, biology, chemistry, economics and physics. The student of art history can take these subjects in many directions and toward many career paths, intellectual and commercial. But this kind of knowledge is actually that which is pursued by all the humanities, by the study of literature, music, philosophy, history and religion. It is the kind of knowledge that a college education seeks to integrate into ways of thinking that will bring, in a word, progress. The wealth of knowledge that one sees in art history is the very definition of the benefits that come with a degree in the liberal arts.

If none of a school's graduates can find jobs in the fields that they hope to pursue, students and families deserve to know that before making a decision about where to go to college. The data need to be detailed enough not to be misleading, including clarifying at what point in a person's career you are measuring earnings; how allowances for time at graduate school and a variety of career choices are made; how family choices about such things as child-rearing are accounted for, etc. Also, we have to be careful not to suggest that earnings, just because we can measure and report them, are all that matters, because not many of us believe that to be true.

We need to be more measured, not less, as we take stock of the current debates over the use of an education. And let us test our conclusions and perspectives as we proceed. Let us develop pictures that bring vision. As an example of the benefits of continual inquiry, "The Night Watch," we have recently learned, was mistitled. It actually shows the militia company of Captain Frans Banninck Cock getting ready, one by one, to march into the day.

Going forward, we will always need graduates who can think broadly and creatively. We will need standards of measurement that can account for all the returns of an education. Dollars count, yes, but education also has contributed many other tangibles and intangibles to human progress and well-being. We will need to support those kinds of achievements in the future.