In Defense of the Social Science Majors

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the worth of anthropology in the education system and job market. First, let me just say that it is distressing that universities, once the sites of higher learning, have turned so swiftly into job mills that politicians fuss over the market value of majors. Gov. Rick Scott suggests the technical demands of the STEM fields should be subsidized by the less marketable non-STEM majors—leaving humanities and social sciences students with more debt when, as Scott notes, there’s less demand for them. In other words, they can sit in more student debt for longer, just so universities can encourage students into the already-saturated STEM fields. Besides, that strategy may not even work:

In a working paper, Xueli Wang, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has studied data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 to find that exposure and success to math at an early age is far more predictive of STEM enrollment than financial motivations. This makes sense: Waving money in front of a high school senior’s face does little if that student doesn’t feel that he or she has the skill set to succeed.   from Pitt News

Moreover, Scott has railed against anthropology, noting that Florida does not need more anthropologists. Besides a total lack of imagination for what anthropologists can actually do, Scott, as well as FL Senator Don Gaetz, are demeaning social sciences by ideologically linking academic study with job preparation. While the two can certainly dovetail, they need not be the same. I recall hearing the opinion generally expressed that trade or vocational school was for those who weren’t smart or motivated enough to attend university. But from the mouths of politicians came criticisms of the universities for being “out of touch,” “anti-American,” or even offensive. Somehow the political rhetoric has shifted from universities’ attacks on academic freedom to their capacity to get people jobs. Universities aren’t just for liberal geeks anymore; they’re for job-oriented real Americans! And where does that leave the vocational schools?

It makes sense to make universities as well-rounded as possible. Elective courses in the arts, dance, sports, computer skills, and other non-academic pursuits can flesh out an undergraduate’s experience. And for the accumulation of resources and networking opportunities, why shouldn’t folks interested in business, engineering, and other technical degrees be able to enjoy a university environment? However, the same extends to folks interested in the social sciences and humanities. And if we’re concerned about the applicability of these degrees, isn’t it better for an art major to attend a university where she can take education courses as well? Or for a poli sci major to be able to take computer courses, in an age when prominence in social media predicted the election results? Rather than dismissing the “soft” majors as useless, let’s foster a sense of interdisciplinarity. After all, when that lab coat wearing, superbly trained science major goes in for job interviews, there’s a couple of presentational techniques taught in introductory theatre courses that will be very helpful.

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