Home > Uncategorized > “Emo Capitalists,” the Humanities, and Job Training

“Emo Capitalists,” the Humanities, and Job Training

Matthew Yglesias made a good point about “emo-capitalists” who want universities to do a better job of preparing workers. There was a similar story in the NY Times a while back about Steve Jobs and Apple mourning the same problem. Yglesias, rightfully, has little sympathy for this argument:

On a firm level obviously one solution here is to just pay higher wages and hire away someone else’s machinist. But there are still only so many machinists to go around. At some point the reasonable thing to do is to find a less-skilled worker who has less bargaining power and lower wages, hire him, and teach him to do the damn job.

I want to piggy-back off this point to make a broader one about the humanities and a university education. There has been a growing concern that universities aren’t preparing students for today’s marketplace. This rhetoric is coupled with the reality that the number of business majors are growing while those enrolled in the sciences or humanities are shrinking–and with tuition continuing to rise, you can understand why students flee for a “money major.” The implication usually is that students should be majoring in the hard sciences, and if they’re not, then business makes sense, because frankly, what good is a degree in the humanities?

In response to these trends, the humanities has been doing a lot of hand-wringing about how to make a public argument about their importance, and many want to emphasize the important workplace skills that are gained, ableit indirectly, by studying literature or philosophy: you learn to write, to communicate, to think critically, etc. I feel that these are all true, and when you acknowledge that with how many job changes people under go during their lifetime, there’s a strong case that a broad-based, liberal arts degree will serve you better down the road than a business degree (plus a business major has been shown to be the best possible way to get the least amount of learning possible from your expensive tuition dollars). But I’m hesitant to make this argument too forcefully because it carries with it the implication that universities should be training future workers, that they have duty to focus on these “essentials” for the sake of the students.

Don’t get me wrong–I think the humanities should do more to help their students connect with internships and other opportunities that will help land them a job after college. But when that becomes your primary reason for funding the humanities or for funding universities, you are undercutting all the other benefits that come from a liberal arts education (greater critical thinking, an awareness of different cultures and worldviews, a greater appreciation for beauty) while essentially providing corporations and employers with an enormous tax break at the expense of taxpayers and college students. As Elizabeth Warren put it, “You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.” While that’s not entirely true (private universities exist and businesses pay taxes too), it should remind politicians and citizens that universities serve a good outside of employment prep and that employers–the ones who actually know what skills they want their students to have as compared to schools and the ones that actually benefit from trained workers–should be primarily responsible for job training.

Thoughts?

PS Here’s Yglesias’s response to someone’s response.

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Categories: Uncategorized
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