My NR colleague Katrina Trinko makes the case in USA Today. After running through the bleak employment stats, she writes:
We’re born curious. (Just listen to the constant stream of “whys” emitting from a toddler.) Ideally, college is a time where we get to indulge that inquisitive streak and explore ideas. It’s a chance to pore over the best-written tomes and savor the crispest sentences. It’s an opportunity to marvel at the complicated chemical formulas that underlie the beauty of the natural world. It’s an occasion to look at the different ways humanity worships and seeks the divine, and an opening to consider the choices and decisions made by cultures throughout the ages. Was all that a waste just because someone’s temporarily whipping up cappuccinos instead of PowerPoint presentations?
I can’t really say I agree. As Ramesh Ponnuru points out, many kids go to college for the sole purpose of working with PowerPoint instead of cappuccino, so if they’re behind the counter at Starbucks after four years and lots of money, that’s a problem.
Further — and I guess I’m coming out of the closet on this point, in this haven of “liberal education” advocates — I don’t really see the point of spending tens of thousands of dollars and forgoing full-time work for the purpose of learning just to learn, and I wouldn’t see the point if colleges did a great job of teaching these kinds of topics, either. Libraries are free, Amazon.com is less expensive than full-time college attendance, and at the very least, if you really need in-person instruction for several years to learn what you want to learn about the “best-written tomes,” that shouldn’t make you eligible for taxpayer dollars.
To be fair, Katrina says to “learn some C++ along with that Chaucer” — and that isn’t so bad, though I would prefer a system that allowed you to learn C++ in school, graduate early, and study Chaucer on your own time. But in my view, too many conservatives think it’s a good idea for people to spend years studying topics with little or no practical application instead of working, just so long as the topics fall under “Western thought” rather than “ethnic studies.”
The best defense of “liberal education” I’ve heard is that it’s good for democracy if people have read “the best that has been thought and said.” But one, you don’t need to stay out of the work force and study with highly paid professionals to do that. Two, the ideas that are essential to civics are best taught in high school. Three, I see no evidence that, in general, people who study literature/philosophy/etc. apply it to politics in a way that improves the debate or changes the way they vote. (Many writers, intellectuals, politicians, and pundits apply the lessons of literature and philosophy, but in their case, these topics are career-relevant.) And four, I think advocates of learning-just-to-learn vastly overestimate how much knowledge is retained. I’m only about five years out of college, and already I can’t remember most of what I studied unless I use it frequently — that is, unless it pertains to my job or is interesting enough to me that I study it even without a professor to make me.
The bottom line is that most of the time, if a student spends a lot of time on topics that aren’t relevant to his career, that time is either wasted, or benefits only him, not society at large. In many cases, an entire degree can amount to little more than a proxy IQ test in the job market — it shows you were able to learn material, rather than certifying that you know material that actually matters. Being a free-market kind of guy, I don’t care if kids and parents want to spend money on education for education’s sake, but I don’t think it deserves taxpayer subsidies, and I don’t think we should be encouraging it.