08/15/2007 10:29 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Revenge of the Liberal Arts?

We all know the mantra: science, technology, engineering, mathematics. The words form a widely used acronym, STEM. These words often occur in the context of another set: China, India, global economy, competitiveness, standard of living, and decline. All of these words also often occur in the context of strong, fear-inducing rhetoric about the nation's fate if the country doesn't wake up and shape up.

But back in December, 2006, I posted an entry "The Neo-cons Discover the Liberal Arts and the Well-Rounded Kid," summarizing a conference sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation on how to get liberal arts back into the crowded and constricted school curriculum. Chester E. "Checker" Finn, Fordham's President, called the day The Revenge of the Liberal Arts.

I wondered then if the Day of the Un-Nerds would be just that or if it could be sustained. Finn and his longtime ideological partner, NYU's Diane Ravitch, have tried to keep the arts bandwagon rolling. A few weeks ago they put out a book based on talks at the conference, Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children. It can be downloaded for free at the Fordham Website[pdf]. A free hardcopy can be ordered there as well.

A few days ago, Finn and Ravitch truly outed themselves with an essay, "Not By Geeks Alone," not in the New York Times or Washington Post, or some staunchly liberal outlet such as The American Prospect, or The Nation, but on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, once referred to by a Slate columnist as a "viper's nest of Right-wing vitriol." One wonders if the piece would have run if Murdoch already had control.

They continue the themes above: "Worthy though these [STEM] skills are, they ignore at least half of what has long been regarded as a "well rounded" education in Western civilization: literature, art, music, history, civics and geography." They left out economics and philosophy. The latter might not get time in K-12, but the recent NAEP economics assessment indicates that economics does, or at least used to. They then point out that NCLB has reduced the time allotted to these subjects, sometimes squeezing them out altogether (there is solid research evidence for this).

They do not deal with the distribution of jobs in the workplace. STEM jobs dominate the conversation, but while service sector jobs only account for 20% of the occupations, they account for 76% of the jobs. Virtually none of these jobs can be offshored. This was among many facts doled out at a June workshop sponsored by the National Academies, "Research Evidence Related to Future Skills Demands."

One of the papers on low-wage service sector jobs noted that waiters and waitresses take customer orders, get drink, put orders into computers, answer questions, bring food, and balance as many plates as possible. They have to display emotion-control skills with customers whose orders might be over or under-cooked, late arriving, or who are mean-spirited or just having a bad day. The paper didn't mention it, I guess because most kitchens are out of sight, but some of these skills are needed to cope with the kitchen, too. At non-peak hours they re-stock sugar and cream holders, prep foods, sweep floors, wipe counters, stock glasses and plates. This is called "sidework" but it is essential to keep the joint jumping smoothly and to ease transitions between shifts.

We often call these jobs "unskilled labor" but as Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, "The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly is truly unskilled." She discovered this while working for two years at a variety of "unskilled" positions. A Ph.D. in biology and former New York Times columnist, Ehrenreich was, at age 57, responding to an editor's challenge. Only a lifetime of weightlifting and aerobics left her with the endurance for the project which she described in 2001 in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

Food work is among the largest occupations in terms of numbers of jobs and it is growing. Care workers (e.g., home health care aids to treat an aging nation) is also large and growing fast (retail sales is the largest of all).

My concern here is not so much that the liberal arts are needed for these jobs -- although they can't hurt -- as it is that they are needed after the work day is over in order to have a rich personal, social, emotional and community life. The liberal arts liberate. If the liberal arts were more central to American life, maybe "Idol" and Paris Hilton wouldn't be.