In Defense of Classics (and other Liberal Arts)

Interesting oped piece by Michael Sloan (who is an assistant professor of Classical Languages at Wake Forest) in response to yet another governor suggesting funding liberal arts courses in university is a waste of money:

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s comments on national radio suggest that taxpayer dollars supporting women’s and gender studies and philosophy classes is wasted money. Those programs, along with many others perceived as academic pursuits “that have no chance of getting people jobs,” are headed for the fiscal chopping block. According to McCrory, liberal arts studies do not lead to employment. The problem is, he’s wrong.

In fact, 95 percent of survey respondents from Wake Forest University’s class of 2012 reported either being employed or in graduate school six months after graduation. Nearly 31 percent of them remain in North Carolina. If history and philosophy and classics majors can’t find success after college, how can a liberal arts university such as Wake Forest account for these numbers?

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) recently published its Job Outlook 2013 Survey, which identifies the core competencies employers seek in college graduates. These skills correspond very strongly with the content and skills acquired through a liberal arts education. The survey identifies communication, teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking and organization. Communication, which includes the ability to listen to others and articulate one’s own thoughts, rated first in nine out of the last 10 years.

As a classics professor, I come to class every day preparing my students for good jobs, but perhaps more importantly, equipping them with the necessary tools for creative and broad thinking — the type of intellectual training that does not merely fill available jobs but creates new ones.

Classics, a field all too familiar with the chopping block — and the one I know best — is primarily the study of Greek and Latin languages and their literatures. In the classroom, students learn to translate Greek or Latin into spoken and/or written English. After conceptually organizing its wider historical context, they critically examine and interpret the material. Finally, they integrate the lessons with their own perceptions and observations. What we do every day, in every class, hones the very skills the NACE reports that employers want.

Let us not forget the lesson offered by Sophocles’ “Ajax,” a canonical work of the classics. Ajax, a mountain of a man, was a mighty hero with a limited set of skills, however, the burgeoning Greek democracy required a new type of hero: one who was articulate, creative and a good leader. Greece required people like Odysseus; the strength of Ajax was of lesser value, and his demise was tragic.

“Liberal arts” is a phrase taken from the Latin, artes liberales , which means “the skills of a free person.” Pursuing the liberal arts in depth broadens our moral and intellectual horizons. Should we be as narrow-minded as our immediate surroundings? No. We must explore the thoughts, deeds and actions of others who have come before us, so as to forge a broader road on which we all may travel with a greater sense of identity and promise for the future. Martin Luther King Jr. (religion), J.K. Rowling (classics), David Packard of HP (classics) and Condoleezza Rice (political science) became great not through narrow skill but liberal training. Do we not realize that job creation is the work of creative minds, wise leaders and broad thinkers? Do we seek to fill only those jobs that currently exist and effectively inhibit new avenues for greater job creation?

What the governor, who is himself a liberal arts graduate, proposes is not higher education but lower.

Classics and other disciplines in a liberal arts curriculum offer students a rare opportunity to listen to the minds of their ancestors, wrestle with profound questions and better understand human behavior. Global leaders recognize that students from a liberal arts environment emerge with nimble and adaptable minds trained to wrestle with complex ideas and discover innovative solutions — essential in our uncertain world. Why should North Carolina be any different? North Carolina citizens should hope Homer and Odysseus are not headed out to sea.

The governor’s assessment is wrong. Classics and other liberal arts studies help students develop skills that are transferable to the career opportunities of the 21st century. Industry and technology change quickly and, for the most part, humans do not.

In his interview with Bill Bennett, McCrory said, “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

Depriving students in North Carolina’s public university system the opportunity to develop employers’ sought-after skills is at best short-sighted, but in reality, counterproductive. We don’t need less study of the disciplines named and implied, we need more. A complex world requires versatile and visionary leaders. That’s why liberal arts programs have been — and will continue to be — the natural breeding ground for our future leaders.

I’ve suggested this before and I’ll suggest it again … it would probably be a very good thing for Classics if departments started tracking the employment status of their graduating students (after six months, one year, whatever). Of course, the chowderheads will reply “sure, what kind of jobs”, but I think that can be said about a lot of just-out-of-university types, no matter what the discipline. Perhaps the info could be centralized by the major organizations and put online for in-your-face purposes.

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One thought on “In Defense of Classics (and other Liberal Arts)

  1. Just for the record, statistics on employment destinations 6 months after graduation have been collected systematically in the UK for all courses in all Universities for some time now. They have recently started being made easily available to prospective new students (alongside a bunch of other data) on the Unistats website: http://unistats.direct.gov.uk/. This hasn’t been in place quite long enough for anyone to get a clear sense of its effects yet, but along with the introduction of higher tuition fees here it is certainly meaning that prospective students have a closer eye on these issues now. In two or three years time it should become clear whether making this sort of data available plays to Classics departments’ benefit or not.

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