Published: Feb. 1, 2013
Point of View: Preparing minds for evolving work
By Chuck Tryon
In a radio interview with former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, Gov. Pat McCrory spelled out his attitude toward humanities education, stating that he sees little value in “subsidizing” courses that he believes contribute to North Carolina’s high unemployment rate.
But McCrory’s comments overlook the true value of a humanities education, not just for our students but for our communities. In fact, having a degree in philosophy, English or gender studies – to name fields McCrory dismissed – may prove to be one of the best paths toward getting and keeping a rewarding, high-paying job.
McCrory’s remarks aren’t just idle comments where he was playing to a sympathetic radio audience. Instead, the governor is working to draft legislation that would fund universities based on how many students get jobs rather than on the usual formula of “butts in seats,” as he bluntly put it.
McCrory’s idea is flawed, however, given that students struggle to get jobs for reasons that have little to do with training. Even fields such as nursing have become intensely competitive. In addition, in just a few years, many students will be working in jobs that do not currently exist, which means that graduates need more than training for specific tasks. Instead, they need to develop vital skills that will be applicable in a variety of jobs.
His depiction of what happens in most liberal arts classrooms also is dated and ignores current trends in many humanities fields toward 21st century skills, including collaboration, communication, problem-solving and technological literacy.
At Fayetteville State, for example, the English Department has begun emphasizing coursework in professional writing. N.C. State has developed an advanced degree program in communication, rhetoric and digital media, a field that looks at cutting-edge technologies and how they change our communication patterns.
No matter what, there is clear evidence that degrees in the humanities help prepare students for the workplace. Research cited in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s “Academically Adrift” shows that humanities classes have been incredibly effective in providing students with the close reading and critical thinking skills that many employers crave.
I share the governor’s concern about the costs and benefits of going to college. Tuition costs are rising rapidly, for a variety of reasons, which has resulted in trillions of dollars in student loan debt. As a college professor, one of my biggest concerns is whether I am doing enough to prepare my students for an increasingly competitive workplace.
I also share McCrory’s desire to support vocational training, as well as majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. North Carolina has benefited immensely from the work being done in the Research Triangle. And students who choose to attend a community college or to get other forms of training can fill jobs – technicians, welders, mechanics and medical staff – that are difficult to outsource or import to new locations.
But placing emphasis solely on STEM majors and vocational training neglects the importance and value of a well-rounded liberal arts education and the often highly flexible skills that humanities graduates develop during their college years.
No matter what, students who complete college degrees are far more likely to find high-paying jobs than those with high school diplomas. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for college graduates is 4.5 percent, while people with diplomas face an 8.3 percent unemployment rate. Those with bachelor’s degrees can expect to earn a median weekly wage of $1,066; those with diplomas make about $652 per week.
Students who demonstrate outstanding critical thinking skills do even better when it comes to finding jobs. These numbers strongly suggest that we should be investing more in our college and universities, not less, if we hope to maintain North Carolina’s status an attractive place to work and live.
UNC has long been one of the most respected university systems in the United States, a community of scholars and students who have furthered our understanding of the world. Thousands of talented students graduate from our universities every year.
Rather than weakening the state’s reputation by reducing the role of the humanities, why not embrace its strengths and focus on celebrating the accomplishments of the professors and students working in all areas of academic study?
Chuck Tryon is an assistant professor of English at Fayetteville State University.