As a proud earner of the #1 degree on the Top 10 Most Worthless College Majors, all of which are in the humanities, I understand that liberal arts concentrations don’t come with people knocking down your door to give you a job.

It appears that as the recession gets worse, we might see the least amount of majors in liberal arts since the mid-1900s, dropping below the current lowest percentage of just over 5% during the severe recession of the 80s.

From the NYT:

As money tightens, the humanities may increasingly return to being what they were at the beginning of the last century, when only a minuscule portion of the population attended college: namely, the province of the wealthy.

People need practical degrees right now, so I don’t blame anyone for getting a degree in science, if that’s what he/she is passionate about. Many others will pass up the four-year degree altogether to become tradespeople, and the new green economy will desperately need these folks. My generation wasn’t encouraged to pick up a trade, only to ‘go to college.’

But in defense of the humanities, I agree with Yale Law prof Anthony T. Kronman, that hard economic times are precisely when we need to be exploring what it means to be human.

But ‘the need for my older view of the humanities is, if anything, more urgent today,” he added, referring to the widespread indictment of greed, irresponsibility and fraud that led to the financial meltdown. In his view this is the time to re-examine “what we care about and what we value,” a problem the humanities “are extremely well-equipped to address.’

What I want to see is a greater integration between arts and sciences, rather than a discussion of which we need more of at this time. There wasn’t as sharp a distinction before the Modern era.

The problem with this article is that it assumes the academy is the only place where values are examined. And if people don’t have the luxury of getting a liberal arts education, they won’t engage in discussions about the meaning of life.

Peter Maurin, the radical who envisioned the Catholic Worker movement, and passed on his ideas to Dorothy Day, used to go on and on about the emergence of the ‘the worker-scholar.’ For Maurin, to be a worker-scholar is everyone’s vocation. Worker-scholars are the result of the educated class joining the labor class to work, play, pray, and discuss current events over meals.

I don’t know if the current economic crisis is severe enough to give us this kind of joy, a society of worker-scholars. But even if only the wealthy can afford the luxury of a liberal arts education, the best wisdom about ‘what life is’ comes from unexpected places.

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