I have a bit of a beef with folks who think about higher education in only the most practical of terms. A few months ago, I attended an Al Jazeera taping at the Newseum in DC about the level of blame the Obama Administration should take regarding the economic plight of Americans of color since the Great Recession began at the end of ’07. Besides the ridiculousness of the questions and comments from the panel — not to mention the relative irrelevance of the topic — a middle-aged Black male stood up to make a comment. He argued that the reason why so many highly educated African Americans and Latinos were out of work was because they only had degrees in African American Studies or History or English.
This esteemed member of the audience believed that only more practical degrees, like ones in business management, business administration, and information systems and technology would be the only ways for folks of color to get good-paying jobs and make their way economically in the twenty-first century world. But he wasn’t alone. In the two years that I have been teaching at my most recent post, about seventy percent of the students I’ve taught fall into four majors. Business management, IT, accounting and human resources management seem to be the most popular majors in my neck of the woods, and the majority of students with these majors are of color. A smattering of students major in criminal justice, and then a select few in the humanities and social sciences.
There’s nothing wrong with this on the surface. Students — especially adult learners — should have the ability to choose their majors early on. Universities like mine can and should concentrate resources toward majors that students want to pursue. The problem I have — especially when one brings in the current funding emphasis on STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) — is that it suggests the humanities and social science fields, the arts and literature, aren’t serious or practical pursuits.
For the average student, the best majors can only be the ones where there is a one-to-one correspondence between the course of study and the job that could be waiting for them in the real world. If you major in business or HR management or accounting, you can — you guessed right — get a job as a business manager, HR manager or accountant. If you declare a major in civil engineering, you’re first job should be as a civil engineer.
If you major in history, what the heck do you do for a living? Starve to death? Get a job as a barista at Starbucks? Stay in school an extra semester to earn certification teaching high school social studies? Spend an extra two years working on a masters degree in history to get a better-paying job as a high school social studies teacher? Spend years earning a doctorate — like yours truly — so that you can starve to death, hope for a full-time tenure-track or tenured position at a university, or get certified as a high school social studies teacher?
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it’s unnecessarily short-sighted. There isn’t such a thing as a one-to-one correlation between degree, major and future jobs and careers. At least when it comes to most undergraduate degrees. Most successful CEOs and business managers have bachelor degrees in — you guessed right — English, history, and political science. Most future law students and lawyers majored in humanities and social science fields, not in criminal justice or law enforcement. Many a mathematics major has ended up in the education and medical fields. And there are plenty of sectors in our economy — the public sector, the philanthropic sector, the nonprofit sector — that hire over-educated Negroes like myself. Not to mention with jobs that pay well.
What you want in an education is flexibility more than anything else. The more flexibility you build into your undergraduate education early on, the more options for employment and advanced education you have as you grow older. Humanities and social science fields, because they aren’t directed at a specific job for the month after marching down the aisle for a piece of parchment, provide flexibility. Even if your first job is as an over-educated administrative assistant at some small organization on the brink of going out of business. Majors as specific as business management, IT and accounting don’t offer the same flexibility. This all matters, especially if you reach your thirties and forties ready to move into, say, a writing or other soft career.
The reality is, no matter what one majors in, given the volatile economic times, we can all expect to change our careers a number of times over the course of forty or fifty years. To act as if practical majors are a magic bullet for economic success and are recession-proof is simply foolish. Just look at how many real estate agents, investment bankers, accountants, business managers and human resources managers are in line looking for work these days. What really is necessary is for all students to choose majors that they can get the most out of in terms of higher learning. Then fight as hard as they can for the kind of work they want after graduation, and if necessary, to go back to school for an advanced degree that further ensures employment in a field of interest and passion. All practical matters aside, this is the most practical way to guarantee a productive and prosperous life and career.