No Joke
Why Liberal Arts is a Smart Choice
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Geography
December 6, 2003

I am not generally a humorless academic, and I do not mind poking fun at myself and the things I care about. I have seen the following joke at least one too many times, however, and cannot help but comment on its assumptions. Most recently, it appeared in the December 6, 2003 Brockton Enterprise, a local paper with a mixed record of covering public higher education.

Having heard this many times, and being in the business of helping students receive a liberal-arts education, I must risk being a grouch and discuss the serious implications of the joke. It reflects a venerable anti-intellectual tradition in the United States, a tradition I view as poisonous.

I have not made a formal study of anti-intellectualism in the United States, but as a casual observer I attribute it to several factors. First -- and this is perhaps too easy for me to say -- it is a bit of sour grapes. If one is not part of the intellectual elite, the next best thing to be is dismissive of it. Second, it is in the interest of those with great economic and political power to encourage the distrust of intellectuals. This is because intellectuals -- although they can be of any political stripe -- have a tendency to ask uncomfortable questions about the ways society operates.

Whatever the causes of anti-intellectualism, it is particularly pernicious for working-class students who are seeking to improve their lot in life through higher education. I have been just such a person, as are the vast majority of my students. Actually, this is not quite accurate: I pursued a liberal-arts education just because I wanted to; the career benefits came on their own, somewhat later. The reason that jokes such as "College Grads" are pernicious is that it tends to confirm a misplaced fear that many working-class students and their parents have: college education is a waste of money, unless each day's lesson can be connected to something that will be needed on the job some day.

Students -- and even some professors, believe it or not! -- object to liberal-arts courses that are not tied to a vocation. For students pursuing a major in such fields, the pressure from family members and peers can be intense: "What are you going to do with a degree in history?" (or English, or music, or philosophy, or geography)

The joke has an element of truth: Students in certain fields can easily find jobs that "match" their degrees. The employment ads are full of jobs for engineers and accountants, but a geography graduate is wasting her time turning to the "G" section of the want ads! The entry-level options for liberal-arts graduates are not obvious; some creativity is required. (In recent years, geographers have gained a slight advantage over other liberal-arts graduates, as many organizations have discovered the value of GIS - geographic information systems.)

Even though the want ads are not full of listings for "philospher," "historian," or "musicologist," long-term career prospects for liberal-arts graduates are quite good. The skills of reasoning, writing, and thinking are always in demand. Even if the career path includes a few burger-flipping jobs along the way, liberal-arts graduates tend eventually to find an appropriate niche, and to do quite well, often surpassing their peers from career-oriented majors.

As examples, my friends and acquaintances with geography degrees include the following successful people: a crime-scene investigator, a newspaper publisher, a library director, quite a few college professors
(of course), university deans , corporate consultants of many kinds, a department-store executive, and a dot-com billionaire. That's billionaire with a "b." Mother Teresa and Michael Jordan also graduated in geography. The same kind of thing is true in many other disciplines. Experienced corporate executives look for new talent among liberal-arts graduates, often prefering them to applicants with business degrees.

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James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College