I was recently invited to serve on a committee. I am, as a rule, allergic to committees. While I realize their utility, I tend to agree with Groucho Marx, who once cracked that he didn't care to belong to any club that would have him as a member.
But this particular invitation came from my old alma mater, the college I attended back in those halcyon days when music was played on a stereo, term papers were pecked on typewriters — and practically everybody smoked.
The members of my class are having a reunion, and they've asked me to help plan it. I am still close to a number of my classmates. We did a lot of growing together while we were in school and, to the extent that some of us have stayed in touch over the years, this sharing of experience has continued through various and sundry breakups, the growth of children, loss of parents and our own, inevitable aging.
So I'm looking forward to meeting up and hanging out with these friends of mine. I've begun to wonder, though, to what extent this sojourn is going to feel like a visit to some reservation for endangered species, where the lot of us will seem like so many marooned sea turtles.
We went to a liberal arts college. Most of us graduated with degrees in things like English, anthropology, sociology, and history. It was great. We learned a lot, like how to read and see and listen, and then how to think and talk about what it all meant. Many of us liked doing these things so much we kept at it, going to graduate schools and getting advanced degrees.
Most of us did all right. Not that we haven't screwed up here and there. But we're working, often in jobs that provide us with a decent amount of satisfaction and community impact.
The trouble is we keep hearing that the kind of education that enabled us to have the lives we do is on the way out. A recent study in the journal Liberal Education finds that many liberal arts colleges are either changing their missions or disappearing altogether. "Although many one-time liberal arts colleges cling to that historical identity in their mission statements and promotional literature, our findings confirm a continuing drift away from the traditional arts and sciences-based model of a liberal arts education," wrote the study's three authors, one of whom, incidentally, works for the accounting firm Ernst & Young.
In an article in the journal Inside Higher Education, Victor E. Ferrall Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College, commented that, "the number of Americans who see the great value a liberal arts education provides is dwindlingÉIn today's market, how is anyone going to get a job as an anthropologist or historian, let alone as a philosopher or expert in 19th-century English literature?"
As if on cue, Forbes magazine recently published a listing of the "10 Worst College Majors." The listing, calculated by the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University, provides discouraging news about what liberal arts majors can expect employment and moneywise. Anthropologists between the ages of 22 and 26 are suffering a 10.5 percent unemployment rate and, if they do land jobs, a median salary of $28,000. "Non-technical majors — the arts (11.1 percent), humanities and liberal arts (9.4 percent), social sciences (8.9 percent) and law and public policy (8.1 percent) — generally have higher unemployment rates," states the Forbes report. "Conversely, health care, business, and the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) have been more stable and higher paying for recent college graduates." Unemployment for nursing grads, according to Forbes, is just 4 percent; their median starting salary: $48,000.
"What society rewards in economic terms has moved away from the softer majors," says Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of Georgetown's CEW. "It's become about how much math you do."
I can easily imagine how a statement like this would have affected me when, as a high school sophomore, I was struggling to keep from flunking algebra. I would have sprinted down to shop class and splattered my math-intolerant brains all over the grease pit there with a tire iron. I'm sorry, but some — make that a lot — of us are not, nor will we ever be, equipped to build our lives around the ability to compute.
Besides, don't we have machines for that?
We Baby Boomers have been blamed for plenty of what's gone wrong with society over the past 40 years or so — from recreational sex to SUVs. But what I want to ask my compadres planning our college reunion is this: Why are we failing to preserve a way of education that enabled us to have the kinds of lives we enjoy today?
The liberal arts introduced us to timeless questions about who we humans are and how we live together. Then they provided the tools necessary to explore these things in ways that, if they haven't necessarily made us rich, have enriched us. When we found these traditions, they were vibrant and alive; we seem to have reduced them to columns in a cost-benefit analysis. You'd think we would have learned to pass along more than that.