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If you’re going to college for a vocationally-oriented degree, you might wonder why you have to waste your time with a bunch of humanities classes. I’m going to answer that question here.
Big picture first: college degrees can very generally be divided into two types. Some degrees prepare students for a vocation, and other degrees develop student capacities, skills, or knowledge in a broader sense. The latter kind of degree falls under the designation of a “liberal arts degree.” Liberal arts study was developed in the current university system when all university education was designed to train priests or lawyers. But, it was still seen as valuable to people who did not wish to be ordained. Liberal arts study — originally grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — was then pursued to give free (liberalis) men the training they needed to conduct business in the world. Liberal arts study, therefore, was the original business degree.
An Associate of Science in Nursing is a vocational degree — it trains students to do a job. Paralegal degrees, other medical science degrees, criminal justice degrees, and other similar AS degrees do the same thing. They provide narrow, focused courses of study that provide job training in a specific field. Bachelor degrees, on the other hand, seek to produce more broadly developed graduates: people who have developed certain skills and attained more advanced levels of knowledge both within and outside of their vocational training.
Vocational degrees are great. In the right fields, they lead to decently paying jobs with a minimal of student debt or time to degree. They are limited, though. Because they aren’t portable to other fields, what happens if you hate your job? Or what happens if the tech changes, or your job goes away? Suddenly, your education is useless because it’s been so narrow, and you need to go back for retraining.
In a very broad sense, college classes designed to produce more advanced students tend to do two things: impart knowledge and develop skills. Almost all classes do at least a little of both, but some classes are very heavily weighted toward skills development (like writing, drawing, or painting classes), while other classes are very heavily weighted toward imparting knowledge, like a chemistry or anatomy class.
Classes that are weighted toward imparting knowledge teach students information they expect students to believe. An anatomy class, for example, expects students to name many (many) different parts of the human body, and students are expected to treat these names as facts. Sunday School classes or sermons are similar — we’re taught things there because we’re expected to believe them, because they are presented as truth.
Classes that are weighted toward skills could be seen as developing different kinds skills and, beyond that, literacy: drawing and painting classes increase your visual literacy, or in other words, not just your ability to see in more detail, but to critically interpret what you see. Classes that are reading intensive, such as history, English, and philosophy, develop a variety of cognitive skills, all of them involving the ability to process a lot of incoming and outgoing text quickly and to think in very different ways, to process different kinds of concepts. History tends to focus on concrete objects of study, philosophy on abstract, while the study of literature tends to combine the two: it teaches us to analyze concrete, creative products using abstract conceptual structures.
Based on this understanding of what a literature class does, I’d like to encourage students, and everyone else, really, not to think of literature classes as classes that teach students information they ought to believe. It’s misguided to think a literature class is there to brainwash students into being “liberals.” Literature classes aren’t anatomy classes, and they aren’t Sunday School classes. Literature classes are somewhat off the map in terms of either kind of thinking as they are usually designed to combine these two purposes. Literary study imparts knowledge for the purpose of developing skills.
The skills imparted by literary studies are partly cognitive, partly relational, and partly academic. For example, reading and writing skills are enhanced through literary study, and they are foundational cognitive skills that contribute to the development of more advanced ones. Literature classes regularly ask students to learn to think in very different ways by reading complex texts. Yes, that’s hard. Students who struggle and have to reread often aren’t at a disadvantage, though. Going through that process is a sign of student learning.
On the relational side, literature classes ask questions like, “How do other people think, what do other people think, why do they think that way, and why is it important, especially to them?” These “other people” may be fictional, real, or mythological, but the literature class doesn’t care: readers have to exercise their judgment, or interpretive skills, equally on all three without ever knowing what the right answer is.
That is one of the biggest benefits of a literature class: each work of literature is like a real life case study in that it presents characters whose words and actions must be interpreted without anyone ever being able to tell us that we got it right. The act of literary interpretation in this way mimics the kind of real life reasoning that we do on a daily basis as we try to understand other people. Literary interpretation just slows down the process and makes it more explicit and deliberate rather than on the spot.
In one narrow sense, literature classes do teach facts they expect students to believe, such as the approximate date of composition of a work, the geographic location in which it was composed, its authorship, etc. Even if we don’t know who the author of a literary work is, we might regard it as a fact that we don’t know who the author is. All of these facts fall under the category of “literary history” and make up the known facts about a literary work with the caveat that, as is the case with all historical artifacts, what we think we know now can change later with a new discovery, as in many of the sciences.
But most literature classes only pay minor attention to literary history. It’s background information. For the most part, literature classes do not teach anything they expect students to believe. They present interpretable material and ask students to interpret it, and to do so coherently, but they never claim that any one justified or coherent interpretation is the right one. Note my caveats, though: justified or coherent. In other words, any valid interpretation according to the range of possible meanings of the work is a right one, but there’s not just one. Meaning in complex literary works is of course not completely subjective, nor is it at all arbitrary: it is limited to the range of meanings made possible by the words on the page.
For example, the word “green” might refer to a color, to someone who is envious or ill, to someone who is new, or to someone who is pro-environment, which means that the word “green” can produce a number of different meanings in a single context, sometimes even more than one at the same time. This idea of a literary work, or even a single word, meaning multiple things at the same time is “polysemy.” It’s an idea found in Plato’s works and very strongly emphasized by the Medievals in Biblical interpretation from the time of Origen, continuing to the present in the current Catholic catechism. Despite the long-known polysemous quality of language, the word “green” can never be a direct lexical substitute for “tall,” so while literary interpretation isn’t fixed, simple, or singular, like the names of our different bones, it isn’t arbitrary. Learning to negotiate a field of information that is neither completely subjective, completely arbitrary, nor completely fixed is one of the several important cognitive skills developed by literary study, because that is most like real life. There are no easy answers.
So I’d like us all to avoid approaching literary works assigned in a class with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to believe something. I’d like us to approach these literary works with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to understand how other people think — people in different cultures or people who lived in past versions of our own culture. I developed a medical humanities-focused world literature class that uses world literature to seek to understand how people thought about their bodies, about health and sickness, and about caregiving in past cultures around the world. This study does involve a seeking after fact, but these facts are at least in part the product of interpretation. They aren’t just presented in a simple and straightforward way on the page, just waiting to be consumed and regurgitated.
As a result, yours or my own or anyone else’s agreement or disagreement with any of the ideas presented in any literary text are completely irrelevant to the purposes of most literature courses, because these courses are not really designed to get students to believe something in particular — aside from facts related to basic literary history described above. It’s asking students to interpret something that’s different from our usual way of thinking to help us better understand people who think in ways that are different from our own, and to help us in a general sense be more advanced thinkers — which is a skill that students can take with them into any profession.
I’d like to encourage you to think about your choice of a college major in terms of three central questions:
- What are the emotional facets of your decision to choose a specific major?
- What are the professional facets of that decision?
- What are the economic facets of that decision?
Let’s explore these one at a time.
- The emotional content of your decision to pursue a major matters. While not every major will set you on a predetermined career path, your study still defines you and the doors that are either opened or closed for you in the future. Your choice of a major does not mean everything, but it still means a lot, so you want to spend some time thinking about who you are and what you really love before choosing a major. Engineers tend to be the highest paid graduates right out of college: are you that good at math? Do you love it? Are you really able to pursue a vocation that you don’t love just for the money it might make you? Some people make this decision, find their happiness outside of work, and live fulfilling lives. Other people make expensive and time consuming mid-career shifts from jobs that they hate to courses of study that will lead them to jobs they love. What do you think you can live with? If it’s at all possible, pursue a course of study that you love. You will do better in it, and your skill sets and enthusiasm can open doors in skills-appropriate fields. If that course of study doesn’t lead to a clear career path, minor in something that does, like business or web development. It will make you easier to place in entry-level positions.
- The professional content of your decision to pursue a certain course of study should be considered as well. Some degree programs are essentially vocational schools: programs such as law, education, and engineering focus your education on one specific industry. You may be able to switch career paths down the road, but your skill sets will be fairly narrow and limiting. Liberal arts majors such as English, history, art, and philosophy, on the other hand, tend to be trainable across a wide range of fields and find success in many different industries, but they sometimes have a harder time getting initially placed because their degrees aren’t clearly associated with a job function. They have much better soft skills than the hordes of business majors and M.B.A. graduates produced every year, though, so they can distinguish themselves once employed. It’s usually smart to pair liberal arts degrees with something like programming or business minors to help employability right out of college. Remember that a degree does not get you a job. It only makes you eligible to apply for certain jobs, and different degrees make you eligible to apply for different kinds of jobs.
- The economic content of your decision to pursue a degree is related to the following factors:
- Cost of the degree.
- Income potential for the degree.
- Age to retirement (related to no. 2) — your income earning potential is limited to your age at graduation.So, obviously, the best financial decision in the degree seeking process, or the best return on your investment for the cost of your degree, is to pick a degree that is pursued cheaply and yields high pay as soon as possible. In the current market, that would be a degree in petroleum or chemical engineering with no debt at graduation. But probably 3-5% of all high school graduates have the math skills to be engineers of any kind, so what do the rest of us do? We try to avoid going into high debt for low paying careers, especially late in life when our income potential is limited. You can save a lot of money by starting in community college and then transferring to a state university, or at least starting at a state university. Keep in mind that the economic value of a course of study is not a measure of its inherent value: that is only a reflection of market conditions at the time, and they can vary. The highest paying fields right now would hit bottom if saturated with more graduates than available jobs. People aren’t paid what they are worth. They’re paid on a supply and demand basis. Pay is only driven up when employers have to compete with each other for employees. Pay bottoms out when graduates are a dime a dozen, and especially when there’s not a lot of money in the industry.
What I’ve just described are the three factors that you should consider when selecting a degree program at any level. However, I can’t tell you which of these are more important to you personally. If you’re independently wealthy and don’t have to worry about lost income or student loan debt in your pursuit of a degree, pursue what you love and forget about everything else. If you have to worry about debt, think about the other two. But no one can tell you how much each of these factors will weigh in your own decision making process. Be careful about using an emotional logic for financial decisions. That doesn’t usually turn out well. Be careful about being purely financially motivated as well, unless that’s who you are.
In other words, if you’re like most people, seek a balance between the three. Your ideal degree program at any level would be where your passions intersect with your best professional identity and your most viable financial position. Most of us have to make compromises, so be careful about compromising any one of these too much. If you’d like personalized advising that can help you think through these factors, consider retaining the services of Bright Futures Educational Consulting. We’re here to help, and we’re experienced at it.