May 8, 2013

Greg Kesich: Liberal arts degree still something to be congratulated on

Granted, the job market is daunting, but employers are liking those non-STEM skills you've acquired.

It's time to honor another group of college grads.

This year's class started as freshmen in the fall of 2009 -- a full year after the economy imploded.

They are now ready to enter a stagnant job market where they will be competing with recent classmates who are still stuck at the bottom rung of the job ladder and older, more experienced workers who were knocked down a couple of rungs while this year's class was still finding its way around campus.

Congratulations!

But, as the commencement speaker is bound to tell you, take heart, things seem to be getting better. And there is even a ray of hope for the most hopeless members of our society -- those of you who are graduating with a liberal arts degree. In case you missed it, Fletcher Kittredge, the CEO of the Biddeford-based Internet and phone company GWI, recently surprised a group of legislators who were looking into work force training issues.

Instead of asking the state to churn out more students with technical training who could step right into high-paying jobs he can't fill, Kittredge said he was looking for something else.

"Start out with an art degree. Being able to be creative, to interact with people, is more likely to be important for someone's career," he told the Joint Select Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future. "A lot of what we think of as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) -- that's out of date. It's like teaching someone to use a slide rule."

His promotion of art education is a little too pat. Just because you're an English major doesn't mean you are a creative thinker (just ask the professors who had to read my essays on "Moby Dick" and "Ulysses"). And just because you studied engineering doesn't mean you can't interact with people (most don't do it well, but it doesn't mean that they can't).

Kittredge raises a fundamental question: What's higher education supposed to do for us?

To the people graduating now, it's been sold as a ticket into the middle class. And that is not wrong. College graduates still consistently earn more than high school graduates and do so throughout their working lives. By retirement age, the difference in earnings stretches into seven figures.

But the middle class ain't what it used to be. Economist Richard Vedder published a recent study called "Why are recent college graduates underemployed?"

Looking at Department of Labor statistics, he and his co-authors found that nearly half of the 41.7 million college graduates in the work force have jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree. Vedder concludes that the country has cranked out more college graduates than it needs, paid for by the students themselves with government subsidies. So that's why you need a B.A. to steam a latte.

The lack of good jobs is apparently true even in the highly valued STEM fields where, according to a different study by Rutgers, Georgetown and American universities, colleges are turning out far more programmers and engineers than the economy is absorbing.

So if a college degree does promise higher wages, but it's not the launching pad it's cracked up to be, maybe it's time to ask what the real value of an education is. That makes Kittredge's uncommon advice sound even more interesting.

We've been reading a lot lately about an alleged lack of diversity of thought at Bowdoin College, documented in a report commissioned by a group of conservative scholars.

According to a column in this newspaper by M.D. Harmon (himself a Bowdoin grad) the college is one of "too many schools (that) fail to support our common American identity and, in the name of outreach to traditionally excluded minorities, those schools have come to ignore unifying and positive principles of American history and current public and private life."

Plenty of people have written that the criticism is unfounded. They say people still graduate from Bowdoin with degrees in American government and American history and other such red-white-and-blue subjects. But would it be so bad if the report were correct?

Isn't that what a college is supposed to do? If graduates are expected to navigate a complicated and fast-changing world, when the skills of understanding people who are different from you are more important than acquiring specific expertise, the education the critics describe is probably just about right.

Unfortunately, our state universities are cutting back on the liberal arts and putting their resources in emerging technologies.

It's too bad for all of us that they think they can't do both.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at gkesich@pressherald.com

 

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