A chill is running down the spines of English majors everywhere. Republican Governor Rick Scott of Florida has floated the idea of charging lower tuition for state college students who major in so-called "business-friendly" disciplines. He told a radio host earlier this week that students "need to get education in areas where they can get jobs." According to his plan, the financial burden of education would be lightened for those majoring in disciplines such as Computer Science, Math, or Engineering and be heavier for those studying, say, Anthropology, Philosophy, or Theater.
There is so much wrong with this idea, I feel a kind of horrified mental paralysis just contemplating it. First is Governor Scott's basic assumption that the sole purpose of education is to get a job. This reduces college to nothing more than preparation for employment and high school to nothing more than preparation for college. If this is the case, why do we bother with all that Shakespeare? All that music and art? And all that algebra for that matter? It may sound naïve to suggest that the main point of education is to learn things, but can't we agree that it is at least part of the point? Of course, higher education is absurdly expensive and people are suffering for lack of work, so the idea that college should prepare you for a career is a logical and beneficial one. But not at the cost of the idea that college is a place to increase your knowledge and understanding of the world. Even people who want jobs at the end of the road want to learn things along the way.
Hand-in-hand with this assumption is the misguided idea that a scientist need only understand science, a banker need only understand economics, a techie need only understand computers, and so on. What gives rise to innovators and experts in these fields is their varied life experiences, deep thinking and broad reading, and exposure to a range of disciplines. Anyone who knows anything about Steve Jobs knows that majoring in computer science is not a direct path to technological innovation. Jobs dropped out of college after six months and started auditing classes. In a talk at Stanford, he said that if he hadn't visited a calligraphy class, "the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts." To put it another way, imagine living in a world where the tech companies, corporations, and research labs were run by people who had barely ever read books, made art, or considered human life through the lens of philosophy or sociology or psychology. Yikes.
It is also a fallacy to suggest that liberal arts disciplines do not prepare people for jobs. I studied literature and theater, and I now teach high school English and write about theater as a magazine journalist. I didn't know exactly what career I was preparing myself for when I chose my college major, but I found the content of my classes moving and inspiring, and that same inspiration lay behind my career choices later on. I have a friend from high school who majored in poetry and is now a college literature professor; a friend from college who majored in film and is now a performer on a children's TV show; and a sister who majored in History and now works on urban planning and development, just to name a few working liberal artists. What if all these young people had been steered towards math and science majors? Who would be teaching college, entertaining children, and rethinking urban housing in their stead?
Speaking of teachers and artists, underlying all of this madness is an idea so fundamental to the way our society functions that we don't even question it, which is the very notion that these numbers-based professions are of inherently more value than those rooted in creativity, human interaction, or community development. Maybe rather than cutting Economics majors a deal -- those same people who will, ironically, go on to make more money than their liberal arts counterparts -- we should stop paying teachers and artists less than bankers and corporate executives. Then those jobs would have more "real world" appeal, and we wouldn't feel the need to discourage young people from majoring in the liberal arts; instead, we could encourage them to major in these subjects that not only expanded their minds and hearts, but also prepared them for high-paying, well-respected jobs in related fields. The result might be a world with just as many happy, healthy poets and painters as bankers and brokers, and how lovely that would be... Oh well, one can always dream.