Ramesh: Overemphasizing the Liberal Arts
By Chandrasekar Ramesh, Contributing Columnist
Published on Thursday, October 25, 2012
While most countries begin specialization early in high school, the United States has a unique tradition in liberal arts education. In India, students begin to specialize in their “plus two” years, the equivalent of their junior and senior years of high school. Based on the track they choose, they apply to colleges for a specific program. Computer science majors would not take any literature courses, and business students would not take biology classes. Most proponents of the liberal arts argue that a well-rounded education provides broader tools to tackle a wide range of problems, and, presumably, such personal development also plays a crucial role in happiness.
However, from an employment perspective, a liberal arts education is disastrous. With 53 percent of all college graduates under the age of 25 unemployed or severely underemployed, this economy does not offer the luxury of postponing specialization until graduate school. According to Payscale, the top 10 schools with the best starting salaries were all technical schools, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology and Loma Linda University topping the list. Many students know from the beginning that they want to pursue a field in a hard science, and for them the “liberal arts” education is nothing but an obstacle. As these fields have shown, solving specialized, narrow problems is incredibly valuable, if not more valuable than solving broad, wide-ranging problems.
For good reason, most countries do not share a similar program. Schooling is often expensive, especially in the United States. A liberal arts education often forces prohibitively expensive costs on students. Becoming a doctor in India takes just three years. After high school, students can enroll in medical school immediately. According to the New York Times, the average American student loan debt is up to $26,500. Forcing a student to graduate in debt just for the opportunity to go to medical school is discouraging for many students from less fortunate backgrounds.
However, even ignoring for a moment the economic costs of a liberal arts education, the underlying assumption that taking courses in literature, arts and humanities is fundamental for well-rounded development must be examined more deeply. No person is a flat, one-dimensional character without any interests besides her major. Certainly, people should feel free to take classes that suit their interests. In the same vein, I took Japanese last year simply because it had been an interest of mine for many years, and I never had the opportunity to study it until coming to Dartmouth. Mandating from an ivory tower that humanities courses are crucial for being “well rounded” is another matter entirely.
Casting aside the absurd argument that the registrar knows more about my personal development or happiness than I do, the corollary to this line of thinking is that studying a single field cannot possibly lead to personal development. Are all problems in computer science really so monotonous that all creativity and passion are drained from me? Perhaps artificial intelligence is so similar to databases or operating systems that no more knowledge could really be gained from studying them. After all, how can computer architecture possibly hope to compare to a beautiful poem by Henry David Thoreau? There is an incredible diversity even within a single field that, while to an outsider may seem incredibly boring, offers a range of applications in many different areas.
A fundamental arrogance surrounds decisions regarding what qualifies as a legitimate field of study. As students and people involved in academia, we should be concerned with who sets these legitimacy guidelines and why they should be upheld. The greatest myth sold to the educational system is that of the “well-rounded” person. We are all sufficiently “rounded,” and we do not need a liberal arts education to make us so.
I’m not espousing the superiority of hard sciences over all other fields of study, nor am I claiming that the humanities are not worthy of study. Rather, if a student wishes to pursue the humanities or the sciences, then let him do so without mandates. Not everyone comes to college with the hope of earning an enormous starting salary, and that is perfectly understandable. Those who believe in a broad-based approach to education will continue to take classes from a variety of departments, but those who want to utilize their four years in specialization and honing their talents in a field should be offered the same opportunity.