The new emphasis on accountability in higher education can have its upsides but the last couple of weeks have reminded me about the anti-intellectualism that often seems to come with such movements.
A couple of weeks ago, Rick Scott, Governor of Florida, suggested that producing degrees in anthropology was not a "vital interest" of his state. He told some editorial writers that there are only a limited number of jobs for anthropologists and wondered why were were producing so many. As a case in point, he cited his daughter who has a degree in anthropology from the College of William and Mary and said that her major did not lead her to a job.
A predictable uproar over these comments ensued, with academics across the country accusing Scott of knowing nothing about higher education. They have a point. First of all, a traditional bachelor's degree is not supposed to be a vocational education. Kids who have degrees in anthropology do not, for the most part, go on to be anthropologists, but that doesn't mean their degree is worthless. Anthropology is not the first social science or humanities degree I would choose to defend--there is plenty of nonsense in any anthropology curriculum--but at many schools, anthropology classes do require serious reading and writing.
As it turns out, Mr. Scott, that's what a lot of employers are looking for. Employers I have spoken to over the years have repeatedly complained to me that students cannot write a coherent memo or send an email that does not make the company look foolish. A couple of years ago Wharton, the premier business school in the country, started a remedial writing program for its students. There are firms all over the country that attempt to train employees to speak and write correct English.
Parents have joked for years about their kids' decisions to major in English or Philosophy, complaining to each other that these are not practical majors. In fact, they turn out to be gaining valuable skills and also, by the way, working much harder than their counterparts in majors that Rick Scott might find more practical, like business. In their book Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa compared the performance of students in different majors. Here's the New York Times summary:
[They] looked at the performance of students at 24 colleges and universities. At the beginning of freshman year and end of sophomore year, students in the study took the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a national essay test that assesses students’ writing and reasoning skills. During those first two years of college, business students’ scores improved less than any other group’s. Communication, education and social-work majors had slightly better gains; humanities, social science, and science and engineering students saw much stronger improvement.
What accounts for those gaps? Dr. Arum and Dr. Roksa point to sheer time on task. Gains on the C.L.A. closely parallel the amount of time students reported spending on homework. Another explanation is the heavy prevalence of group assignments in business courses: the more time students spent studying in groups, the weaker their gains in the kinds of skills the C.L.A. measures.
(This is not to say that there are not useless or non-rigorous humanities and social science courses. Last weekend, a young woman called up the show Car Talk on NPR and revealed to Click and Clack that she was majoring in "Photography and Community Studies." They reasonably wondered whether her parents were aware of this.)
One thing that parents and university administrators and students used to agree upon was the utility of majoring in the STEM fields. Everyone knew that these majors led to jobs. Or I thought they did. According to a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted to phase out 64 degree programs that failed to attract enough majors. At Texas Southern University, for instance, those majors included chemistry, math, physics, English, and art. (English and chemistry were given a 2-year reprieve at the meeting).
So why aren't enough people at places like Texas Southern majoring in things like chemistry and math even though jobs in those fields are much more readily available? For one thing, of course, they're more difficult. As a piece in today's Education Life section of the New York Times explains, "Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree." Everyone knows that grade inflation is significant in the humanities and social sciences but not in the hard sciences.
As long as the STEM fields are harder to succeed in, students are going to flock to other majors instead. So what are the solutions here? Eliminating STEM fields? Is that in the "interest of the state"? There are two obvious answers. First, eliminate the grade disparity. And second, eliminate some of the useless, non-rigorous majors. Let's start with business. And community studies.