While in an earlier article I was defending the admissions practice of preferring legacies, I had occasion to mention John Adams’ definition of a gentleman as one who has received a liberal education. I then proposed, on the basis of Harvard’s own endorsement, that the purpose and duty of these gentlemen is to lead their towns, states, and country. But the reason that the education must be liberal, rather than technical, I did not explain, and we cannot consider the subject adequately treated before I do.
Until the last century, college curricula comprised mainly the natural sciences, mathematics, philosophy, and Latin and Greek classics, which together furnished the student with considerable refinement of thought. None, however, obviously lends itself to practical application in a job — even scientific education had the character of classifying and understanding rather than engineering and contriving. The goal of this liberal education was not to impart a skill but instead to cultivate the mind, preferring integration to specificity.
The notion of college that has emerged since World War II, however, is quite different. One often hears experts urging higher education as the path out of poverty and into prosperity. The mere fact of having a degree is said to increase one’s earning potential so dramatically that one should attend at all costs, and nobody is surprised when Senator Bernie Sanders pipes up with the demand that this earnings benefit be given to everyone for free.
But if having a degree is actually the cause of someone’s higher salary, then the reason must be that there exist many jobs that require skills that are especially or exclusively obtained in college. This is obviously true in the case of such fields as chemical engineering, medicine, and theology, in which on-the-job training results in death or heresy — that is, failure. Yet for many other jobs, the market is plagued by “degree inflation” — employers demanding degrees even though the work does not require them.
Recent studies have attempted to document this problem. Burning Glass Technologies found in 2014 that 65 percent of jobs posted for an “executive assistant” listed an A.B. as a requirement, but only 19 percent of executive assistants working at the time had one. A 2017 Harvard Business School investigation concurred: “In 2015, more than 1.4 million people were employed as first-line supervisors of office and administrative support workers. Of those, only about 34% had a bachelor’s degree. However, in 2015, 70% of job postings for this occupation asked for a bachelor’s degree … even though the nature of the job remains the same.”
Because, as the Business School study also suggests, employers are merely using the degree as a proxy for general aptitude and maturity, it does not much matter what an administrative support worker studies. Hence the proliferation of such ridiculous, inane, and anti-intellectual majors as communications, marketing, and management, for which perfectly employable high school graduates pay through the nose. (I do not, of course, blame them; how else ought one behave under extortion?) This is the origin of the 2013 statistic that only 27 percent of college graduates have a job related to their major.
Even fields that could plausibly demand some prior technical knowledge — accounting, say — are illogically served by four-year programs when the necessary skills could be taught in six months. The traditional period of four years, or at the English universities three, accords with the liberal-arts model of education as moral and cultural as much as intellectual training, a marinating that takes time. Learning how to code, on the other hand, can be done in a boot camp. The result is that for thousands of students, college is four years in which to do only one year of work, the rest of the time to be filled with taking travesties of liberal-arts classes and stepping over fraternity brothers at the bottom of the stairs.
These facts surrounding degree inflation suggest that there was a significant supply of unnecessary degrees before degree inflation started — one suspects the G.I. Bill and its successors, but that is beyond the scope of this piece. The point is that the intelligent observer will realize that the liberally educated remain a small minority of the national population regardless of how many people attend universities, even if Senator Sanders gets his way. One is amazed that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should want to foist her obviously narcoleptic education upon thousands of respectable high school graduates who could get a fine job if only for degree inflation. What we need instead, so as to avoid adulterating higher education any further and burying alive any more hapless students under mountains of debt, is fewer college students, not more.
The governing class — the liberally educated — is a small group, self-selectingly so, and the health of the republic depends on the restoration of the integrity of that liberal education.
Liam M. Warner ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Classics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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