The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that five undergraduates at Indiana University in Indianapolis have received the first college degrees in the field of philanthropic studies. IU has a great Center on Philanthropy -- I know some of the faculty and have been impressed with their research and writing. But count me a little skeptical of this degree. It's part of a long-running trend toward offering bachelor's degrees in more "useful" subjects.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Wake Forest University has been offering liberal arts majors the opportunity to minor in "Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship." According to the Journal,
The five-year-old program, the school's most popular minor, requires students to learn the practical aspects of starting a business. It is a sign of change in liberal-arts colleges, which are grappling with the responsibility of preparing students for a tight and rapidly shifting job market while still providing the staples of academic inquiry.
Colleges may be feeling more pressure to offer these kinds of programs as a result of the recession. (Parents should keep in mind that despite all of the panic, people with a college degree are still twice as likely to be employed as those who don't have one) But I don't see the evidence that a degree in innovation or entrepreneurship will necessarily add to your employability. It might, one supposes, if it comes with some kind of on-the-job training. And internships are always a part of such programs. But I don't know how classes in creativity or innovation actually teach people either of those.
I am often asked by parents about the usefulness of a liberal arts degree. For decades people have been mocking the philosophy and the English degree as the pursuits of perpetual dilettantes. For the most part, I maintain that there is no reason to disparage such degrees -- certainly no more than business or anthropology. I don't think it's college's responsibility to prepare students for a "rapidly shifting job market," also known as "offering 21st-century skills." These phrases also can be heard alongside such breathless thoughts as: "The jobs we are preparing students for don't even exist today." You know, the future will be different.
When I talk to employers, though, the future seems a lot like the past. They care about having employees who know how to write well, who are well-read and keep up with what's going on in the world. They want people who are diligent and careful and perhaps even a little bit humble in their approach to work. Employers like to find college graduates who are eager to learn, know how to absorb information quickly, and know how to ask relevant questions.
But let's say that students are getting a strong liberal-arts foundation before they pursue their more vocational degree. The IU curriculum, the Chronicle reports, will
also cover the philosophical underpinnings of philanthropy and the social, cultural, political, and economic roles that charities and foundations play. "Philanthropy is approached as a human activity within society rather than how do I manage an organization," says Julie Hatcher, director of undergraduate programs at the Center on Philanthropy.
This certainly sounds like the best way to approach the topic. Philanthropic studies at another school might just as easily attract people who just want to do good, who don't give much consideration to these larger philosophical issues, and who then get funneled into the bureaucracy of some NGO or other nonprofit. And to the extent that Indiana University is starting a trend, that may well be the result.