The topic comes up a lot lately: what can you do with a liberal arts degree? It has been the subject of dozens of newspaper and magazine articles, many of them no doubt inspired by Rick Scott, Florida’s Tea Party governor.
Mother Jones magazine headlined a report on Gov. Scott’s educational theories “Rick Scott to Liberal Arts Majors: Drop Dead.” Gov. Scott is all in favor of supporting the state colleges, as long as they turn out graduates with the types of skills that corporations are looking for. “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” Actually, anthropology seems like a fairly practical field of study that can be of obvious value to corporations – and perhaps the mistake the anthropologists made was in trying to demonstrate the practical applications of anthropology, just as, when the New York Times offered a discussion of the value of a major in English, many readers claimed that you needed a B.A. in English in order to know how to write. The attempt to treat liberal arts on Gov. Scott’s terms is a mistake. It may be possible to argue the value of anthropology and English at that level, but once you get to Mannerism in the Late Italian Renaissance, finding everyday applications is a stretch.
What Gov. Scott and his ilk are missing is the role of the liberal arts in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the triangle, maybe pyramid, that lists human needs from the most basic, air, food, water and sleep, up through safety (gun control and a steady job), belonging (friends and family) with the top level being self-actualization (creativity, spontaneity). As you get higher up the pyramid, people want more. We want recognition, which is why we have a NASCAR Hall of Fame, a Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, and even a Toy Hall of Fame (it’s first inductee was Barbie, but Big Wheels and Game Boy are also included.) The arts, the areas of study with no benefit that Gov. Scott can see, are the things that enrich our lives, and people who have moved up the pyramid want to live in places where top level needs can be met. Beyond that, they have the money and willingness to pay for them. People who have found success on Gov. Scott’s terms want even more, and that will include museums, theater, restaurants and other areas of culture that have no obvious value to corporate operations, but will act as a magnet for the scientists, engineers and the other employable types that Gov. Scott wants to create.
The best illustration may be Pittsburgh. Unlike other cities that depended on a single industry and collapsed as the industry left (see Detroit), Pittsburgh, once known as Iron City, reinvented itself as a center of education and culture. If the major universities have shifted their focus to useful studies, medical research and technology, they’re backed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Andy Warhol museum. In 2011, The Economist ranked Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the United States and 29th in the world, beating Honolulu (30th), Los Angeles (44th) and New York (56th). (Vancouver, Canada was #1) The way the livability index is set up, medium size cities have the edge over large ones, but Pittsburgh also made Forbes’ 2012 list of best places to retire.
Gov. Scott wants to train students in marketable skills, in science and technology – but the people with these skills would rather be in Silicon Valley, California; Boston, and Silicon Alley, New York. Notably, these are all areas with a Democratic majority, which squares with a 2009 Pew Research survey that found that 55% of scientists considered themselves liberals, compared with only 20% of the general public. You really can learn something practical in Florida: don’t vote Republican.
Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2013
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