THE BLOG
06/10/2014 11:42 am ET | Updated Aug 10, 2014

We're Number One

Every year business-oriented publications like Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and Kiplinger's rate college majors. What are the best and worst courses of study for getting a good, well-paying job after graduation? It's hardly surprising that disciplines in the social sciences and humanities rank much lower than engineering and information technology. In the latest twist to the ranking game H&R Block analysts have compared and contrasted post-graduate unemployment rates.

In her June 5 piece in The Huffington Post, Emily Thomas summarized the H&R Block infographic:

According to the chart, recent graduates who majored in social sciences and creative fields like anthropology, film, fine arts and graphic design faced the biggest unemployment rates (about 10-12 percent). Conversely, the top industries for recent graduates were found to be advertising, followed by computer software and finance.

Even though anthropology is not a "creative field," it is nonetheless at the very top of the H&R Block chart of worst college majors. Based on the rankings of Kiplinger's, The Wall Street Journal, and H&R Block as well as the statements of Florida Governor Rick Scott (whose daughter, lest we forget, was an anthropology major) and other believers in the infallibility of the "market," you have to be fool to major in disciplines like anthropology, foreign languages, philosophy, film-video, or worse yet, "liberal arts." From the vantage of this mentality, these disciplines may promise intellectual stimulation or even some degree of passion, but offer little return on your investment dollar.

These rankings are sadly similar to President Obama's proposal to create a university ranking system based upon graduate and post-graduate employment rates and salary levels. As Jamienne Studley, one of President Obama's education officials, put it: ranking a university is as easy as rating a blender. Go to a university with a good four-year graduation rate and pick a major that will ensure good post-graduate job placement.

This business-model product evaluation discourse, it seems, has slithered its way through multiple levels of college and university administrations and has now emerged at the highest levels of the federal government. Given its pervasive power, the corporate university model threatens to transform our institutions of higher education from arenas of intellectual pursuit to job training centers. No need for extraneous thinking or pondering the whys and wherefore of life. Just master the essentials, get certified and move out into the "real world."

Such a pragmatic vision has many advocates among university administrators and state and federal officials. Their zeal for the university-as-blender model has triggered higher education budget cuts and the reduction or elimination of "non-productive" programs like foreign languages, art history, and philosophy. Even so, there is growing concern among some members of the business community that our soon-to-be factories of higher education will spit out an ever-expanding cadre of narrowly focused, mindless, and clueless automatons.

In his insightful Inside Higher Education article "Business and The Liberal Arts," published in 2013, the former CEO of the Seagram Corporation, Edgar M Bronfman wrote about the value of a liberal arts degree.

My advice, however, is simple, but well-considered: Get a liberal arts degree. In my experience, a liberal arts degree is the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.

For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically -- to understand what people mean rather than what they say -- cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.

I am sometimes shocked when I encounter students, often graduating seniors, who don't know how to use the library. Many of these students have never conducted archival research. Many of them have never organized and written a research paper. Instead they tend to take multiple-choice exams and learn "what's needed" so they can pass the test.

If you major in anthropology or just about any other social science or humanity, it's very likely that you'll leave the university as a broadly educated person. Chances are you will have developed the analytical skills to evaluate a set of data, interpret those data and, then based upon those interpretations, make critical judgments. These moves are the very essence of what Mr. Bronfman calls..."the ability to think clearly and critically." By the time most of my students earn their undergraduate degrees in anthropology, they have the capacity to "to understand what people mean rather than what they say..." Indeed, as scholars of social life and culture, my anthropology students know how to place events in larger social, political and economic contexts.

The value of these analytical and expository skills is hard to quantify and difficult to rank. They certainly cannot be compared and contrasted like blenders or vacuum cleaners. As educators it is our obligation to teach the aforementioned skills to our students, skills that will make them more thoughtful and productive participants in the workforce, skills that will make them better citizens, skills that will ensure a future of innovation and invention.

For me, that's a record that corresponds to a real number one designation.

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