The Liberal Arts and Humanities, Law School, and Careers for the Somewhat Unpractical Student
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.
by New Dealer
I am able to cause a minor freak-out when describing my undergraduate and graduate school programs to most people. Not because the institutions were super-elite (though my undergrad institution was) but because the programs were small. For undergrad, I went to what seems to be a uniquely American institution, the small liberal arts college. This means that graduate students are either negligent or non-existent, most classes are de-facto seminars because they rarely exceeded 25-30 students, and all the instruction was all done by professors because of the previously mentioned lack of graduate students. In graduate school (for my Master’s, not law school), I was one of nine directors in a program of sixty-three or so actors, playwrights, and directors. Most of my classes were just with the same eight other people for three years.
The reason this seems to freak people out is that they cannot imagine attending educational institutions that are this personal and not anonymous. Most of my classmates in law school attended large state universities, generally in the UC and CSU systems. These are schools where most classes are lectures for hundreds of people and sectionals run by overworked and underpaid graduate students. In other words, it was fairly easy to miss a lot of class and still get good grades if you knew what to study and apply yourself. Most people find the small class-sizes of my undergrad and grad school educations to be undesirable but I loved them.
Small Liberal Arts Colleges are also somewhat unique in their firm lack of so-called practical majors. My undergrad did not have majors in business, engineering, and other sure to get you job subjects. We had computer science and pure sciences like biology, chemistry, etc. Pre-meds generally majored in biology or chem. There was no pre-law program. The closest thing we had to business was economics.
This is just a very long way of saying that my school attracted a particular type of student. We tended to be somewhat artsy, somewhat precocious, and a bit on the outside in high school. I do not think it was uncommon for many students at my undergrad to feel like they found a place where they belonged for the first time. We were a self-selecting bunch.
All of my educational history gives me a different prospective to all the talk about the need for more people to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields as undergraduates. The call for more STEM majors seems to be a bipartisan solution to multiple issues. STEM majors are the political and pundit cure-all for more middle-class jobs and keeping America competitive in the new global and post-Industrial economy. STEM majors justify student loans in ways that a Middle Ages and Renaissance studies degree does not.
My issue is that I find all of this to be a bit short-sighted and somewhat anti-Intellectual. This is not to say that STEM majors are not hard or challenging. I certainly could not complete a STEM degree. However, there is importance is studying the arts and humanities. This should be self-evident in any civilized society but it is not. Instead we have a society filled with cheap jokes like “a buck fifty and an English degree gets you a cup of coffee”. We also have a society that thinks of a graduate arts degree as being a road to destitution and misery. There are many celebrities and successful artists with Masters of Fine Arts. Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver are graduates of the Yale School of Drama. John Irving received a Masters in writing from the University of Iowa, so did many other highly-regarded novelists. Yet I don’t think the public perceives these artists or themselves as having benefited from graduate instruction. Many people still seem to think of artistic talent as being innate over something that can be learned and developed through education and practice. This is not true. There might be something to an artistic nature but no artist emerges fully developed like Athena from the head of Zeus or Aphrodite from the Cyprian sea.
However, I feel that there might be some truth to the idea that arts and humanities students are somewhat impractical. I did have a lot of friends who were very smart and hardworking but could not figure out how to earn a living after graduation. Many of them took stereotypical liberal arts jobs like working in a coffee shop or bookstore right after graduation while trying to figure out what to do with their lives and careers. Some took longer than others.
My own personal journey is rather typical. After finishing undergrad, I went abroad for a year. When I came home, I tried to start a career in theatre and earned money through a series of temp and part-time jobs, mainly in proofreading, publishing, and other project work. After a while, I decided that the chances of me earning a career as a theatre director were slim to none and I was tired of the hand in mouth existence. I again made the typical decision here and applied to law school.
Like many people, I applied to law school partially because it was familial, partially because it seemed intellectual, and partially because I could not think of anything else to do. My grandfather was a lawyer, my dad is a lawyer, my brother is a lawyer. This was true for many of my law school classmates. There were also many other former artists like me in law school: writers, dancers, painters, musicians, theatre and film people, etc. Law School seemed to be a way for me to achieve a comfortable existence and choose where I want to live. Most people went to law school for similar reasons.
Unfortunately we all applied and graduated from law school at the wrong time. During my first semester of law school one major San Francisco firmed shut down and this was a firm that opened during the Gold Rush days, most big corporate law firms decided to defer or cancel their first-year associate positions. By the time I graduated in 2011, only one or two people received a traditional big firm offer.
My law school was not bad and my fellow students and professors are all hard-working and highly intelligent. We are also suffering. Two years later and I have no idea how many people are working in law. My friends seem to be doing okay but many are not working in law, some set up shop for themselves with varying degrees of success. My job does require a bar license and I have been working full-time for over a year and this makes me one of the lucky ones according to the current statistics in the law school crisis.
Once again, all this does is raise questions that I do not have answers to. I am not sure that there are any easy answers to these questions. The questions are about the very nature of the American educational system. We seem to produce three or four kinds of college student. The first are people who realize that a college degree is necessary for a middle-class life or above. These students tend to study business, marketing, accounting, hotel management, etc and take corporate jobs quickly after graduation. The second type are those who know and always knew that they wanted to go to professional school in law, medicine, psychology. The third are STEM types. And then there is the fourth type: the precocious liberal art student who loves to study but takes a while to turn their love of literature or other art/humanity into a career. Many of these students use to end up in law school but that might no longer be true.
I am a member of the fourth group and find the problems facing us to be perplexing. I am not sure how much of the problem lies with students and how much lies with a societal/HR bias that says majoring in Renaissance Studies, Theatre, Music, Art History, Asian Studies, and all other get you a coffee degrees will not cut it in the corporate/business world.
I do not regret any of my educational choices. I do not regret my choice of undergrad alma mater, my choice of major, my MFA, or going to law school. The MFA was necessary to give me a sense of completion and mastery in an academic field. I enjoy being a lawyer and find the cases I have worked on to be interesting and challenging, while also helping people. Though I still worry about my future.
I am still firmly supportive of the liberal arts and humanities for the typical reasons. Studying the Liberal Arts and Humanities turns students into critical thinkers, writers, and people. They can also deepen our love for the world and our fellow human beings. We become more compassionate and tolerant through the study of history, art, religion, culture, philosophy, and anthropology. Ideally we also learn to avoid past mistakes made by previous generations. I also believe that everyone benefits when other’s study art because most people generally enjoy one or more art forms from music to movies to painting to sculpture to TV to literature, etc. Though I do worry that the current recession plus the current focus on STEM is going to dissuade many people from studying the liberal arts and humanities especially as departments get gutted in cost saving measures and full professors get switched with adjuncts.
So League, what do you think we should do with the highly intelligent but somewhat unpractical student? Is there anything wrong (from a with a person spending a good part of their twenties working odd-jobs while trying to find a career? Can we find a way to teach people that it is okay to major in Art History and then go into marketing or some other business field? Can we teach corporations that liberal arts students make good employees?