In the last installment, I laid out Alfred Marshall’s argument that we are better off because we have come to understand key ideas. Marshall further pointed out that if we destroy the embodiment of the ideas, such as the law that allows women to own property, but we retain the ideas that allowed us to make such laws, we would rebuild readily enough.

But, as Stover writes, when academic administrators speak about the humanities, today, they infrequently refer to Big Ideas. Deans, provosts, and presidents frequently justify the humanities using a different sort of instrumentality, that of “job market prospects” or “training.” We claim that students who have been exposed to books, the arts, and the social sciences will do better in the labor market as a result of their college education, that university graduates have acquired more than a signal to potential employers. We claim that they have actually mastered some skills that prospective employers apparently demand.

I agree with Stover that we have been on weak ground. The truthful answer, I suppose, is: It depends. It depends on the particular set of courses taken, what skills and materials the students learned, and how well the student can describe the supposedly useful skills acquired in the undergraduate experience.

Yet we need to recognize that we work in the 21st century University. Students come to a university with expectation that they will gain skills useful to their professional and personal lives ahead. It’s only fair that we convey to them as best we can how their undergraduate education will help them professionally.

Students who take the courses in leadership studies, for instance, can expect to gain experience in

  • Ethical decision-making;
  • Writing; and
  • Making an argument.

None of those is specific to a career. All are important to a life and career well-lived.

It’s important to note that the debate about whether undergraduate education is for career preparation or general skills is not new. In 1867, on the occasion of his inauguration as rector at St. Andrews University, J. S. Mill remarked

 [People] may be competent lawyers without general education, but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers who demand, and are capable of apprehending, principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details. And so of all other useful pursuits, mechanical included. Education makes a [person] a more intelligent shoemaker, if that be [their] occupation, but not by teaching … how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses.

University administrators would do well to explain to their students, potential employers, and the public, just how important this “mental exercise” is. And we must help students communicate about the skills they have acquired during their undergraduate years. Kate Materna Rezabek’s recent guest post about the Jepson EDGE Institute illustrates how we try to communicate this message at Jepson.

On the role of the humanities and social sciences in today’s University (Part 2)

Sandra J. Peart


Dr. Peart is Dean of the School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is an economist with special interests in leadership and economics and leadership ethics. More about her: Go to jepson.richmond.edu and see faculty information.


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