Students seek career prep, not classics

To be “relevant” to students, some colleges are dropping unpopular classics and philosophy majors and pushing career prep, reports the New York Times.

The University of Louisiana, Lafayette, is eliminating its philosophy major, while Michigan State University is doing away with American studies and classics, after years of declining enrollments in those majors.

And in a class called “The English Major in the Workplace,” at the University of Texas, Austin, students read “Death of a Salesman” but also learn to network, write a résumé and come off well in an interview.

Students and their parents want a return on their degree — in dollars and cents, not enlightenment. In 1971, 37 percent of UCLA freshmen said it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially,” while 73 percent said the same about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2009, 78 percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy.

Business has been the top major for 15 years. Now students also are turning to health fields, environmental science and  bio-anything. Chinese and Arabic are hot, while French and German are not.

Employers surveyed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities take a broader view:

. . .  89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”

I majored in English and Creative Writing.

About Joanne


  1. So our young people are supposed to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars to go to college so that they can learn…what? How to get a job that pays off their college loans? That’s the sum total of western culture and wisdom?

  2. I think this might be based on the mistaken notion that business wants to hire idiots who nevertheless have good connections, nice resumes and excellent interviewing skills.

    The classics are not studied for the hell of it, they’re studied for the vast and diverse lessons we learn from them.

  3. Maybe they should have kept Camus in the curriculum…

  4. Maybe it would be a good idea to mandate that everyone take both logic and rhetoric, as they used to be taught (in classics departments); it might help to clarify both thought processes and their expression.

  5. Will the last one out of civilization kindly turn off the lights?

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Any English major who can’t figure out how to write a resume and cover letter without wasting credit hours on it is probably not very bright to begin with….

    Isn’t that what ‘career placement’ centers are for???

  7. All I can do is join in the choir. How very depressing.

    I would have gone out the window if I had been made to write resumes in college English seminars. Nothing can have value for its own sake. What a shame.

    Thousands of years of thought and Enlightenment down the crapper….

  8. The question is: what can you do when you get out of college?

  9. Mike Curtis says:

    If colleges are about education, why is the highest salaried employee typically the football coach?

  10. Mark Roulo says:

    For the poster’s decrying this: is there any level of tuition (and the subsequent loans) that would make a major like classics or literature seem like a bad idea (compared to something more “practical” like science or engineering)? Right now a 4-year undergrad degree at many colleges seems to run around $160,000 to $200,000. If tuition was $500,000 for 4 years (at a 5% interest rate, this would mean about $25K/year to pay for student loans … forever), would it still be bad for students to be avoiding these majors? $1,000,000?

    I’m thinking that there is a *big* difference between committing 4 years of your life to studying ancient Greek and Latin and the authors who wrote in those languages, and … committing 4 years of your life and also signing up to $10K/year in interest payments for decades (which is what $200K of student loans over 4 years at 5% interest run).

    -Mark Roulo

  11. Thank you Mark. I attended college when a high end one was $2000 per year. My debt after college was minimal. My children, who do love the life of the mind, don’t have the luxury of ignoring whether they will be employable after graduation.

  12. Mark has a point. I spent four years reading the Great Books and loved it, but I was lucky: my parents picked up the tab. I’d hesitate to recommend my path to my students if it meant they’d need $100,000 in loans. That is a wretched burden to bear; it really robs one of freedom.

    Yet another reason why society should subsidize university education like they do in Europe.

  13. The European model isn’t perfect. Some countries limit access to university through the numerus clausus. As the government pays tuition, far fewer students are permitted to study at a university. Others, such as Britain, are currently limiting the number of positions available for British students, so that they may take more full-pay international students.

    Why does college cost so much, and does it need to? Is a better question, in my opinion. Should students be expected to underwrite a professor’s research, through tenure systems? Or would it be healthier for the system as a whole to modify tenure?

  14. Yet another reason why society should subsidize university education like they do in Europe.

    Right, so taxpayers can pay for some kid to sit around reading Great Books?

  15. and other colleges are pushing the classics over career prep. It’s like K12 all over again. Maybe someday we’ll learn.

  16. That’s a great article, Curmudgeon. Written by a Yale senior, it conveys beautifully the value of reading the Great Books.

    To Cal: every great culture of the past has esteemed its classics –think about China, for example. There is a reason classics become classics –they nourish the mind in a way that other texts do not. There is a reason the liberal arts are called “the liberal arts”: they liberate the mind from ignorance. Personally I’d prefer to live in a country that has many citizens who are well-versed in the classics, not just the latest business lit or how to sell phony financial products or programing sociopathic video games. I think subsidizing some kids’ study of Great Books would be an investment that would make our country a better, more civilized, more sane place.

  17. I didn’t do a liberal arts degree at university – I did engineering and then economics. I think the engineering degree was as good for teaching critical thinking and expanding your knowledge of the world as studying Latin or Greek or literature. Espeically since we had to make stuff actually work in our labs.

    And, also, even if liberal arts is valuable, why should studying them as part of a full-time course at university be the way it should be done? Why not part-time over a lifetime? Even if you only studied the classics for 4 years flat at university you’re not going to get through them all. A maths-heavy degree might require some sustained concentration, but literature?
    Perhaps universities’ humanities departments should be thinking about other ways of delivering their knowledge.

  18. Any English major who can’t figure out how to write a resume and cover letter without wasting credit hours on it is probably not very bright to begin with….

    Isn’t that what ‘career placement’ centers are for???

    Exactly right, and competent academic advisors, no matter what the major, direct their students to those centers.

  19. First, there’s a difference between “career prep” and majors in technical fields. From the article it seems that career prep largely consists of how to get a job (resume writing, interviewing tips, etc). I think I learned most of these skills in middle school Home & Careers…

    The study of classics is important because it fosters pride in one’s cultural heritage. I grew up reading Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, etc. Now I’ve seen students reading a lot of multi-culti literature or modern day teen trash (I’d say the Babysitter’s Club series of books had more literary value than some of the new assigned readings). Students don’t seem to realize the troubles that our nation has gone through in the past (Civil War, Great Depression, etc) and seem to think that life in the US has always been hunky-dory. Rather, they focus on the plight of the African Continent and other impoverished areas.

  20. Margo/Mom says:

    “In 1971, 37 percent of UCLA freshmen said it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially,” while 73 percent said the same about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2009, 78 percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy.”

    I also majored in English (theater minor)–picking up coursework in journalism and fine arts post graduation. I have never regretted, nor found a lack of work applications for my fine arts background. However, I hasten to point out that the world in 1971 was considerably different than that today. The path through college might easily be stretched out over any number of years (as some draft avoiders did) for the simple enjoyment of being in school, or to delay commitment to a single field of study. It was not at all difficult to leave college and get a job earning a wage that could support a family on an assembly line or other factory work in a union environment. Those low-skill, adequately paid jobs no longer exist. Is it any wonder that the current school population is more worried about future employment than about enlightenment?

    Personally, I would enjoy teaching a class that links English to the workplace (especially using Death of a Salesman as content), not only because of the literature, but because I see such a need for practical writing ability. A resume is not longer simply a list of former jobs and degrees. It has to communicate exactly what the applicant has accomplished within each of those jobs, and do it in a single sentence. Certainly this is a writing discipline as worthy as trying to cram a thought into the limited syllables of a haiku, or Shakespeare’s writing exercise of producing sonnets. I don’t yet twitter–but I see a worthy writing challenge in the ability to craft meaningful statements into a short format. It requires careful thought and selection of detail and words to do well–like poetry.

    As I get older–I find inspiration not in lookinf for ways to perpetuate the forms of earlier years, with which I am familiar, but in finding commonalities and new uses in the forms that are current.

  21. Yet another reason why society should subsidize university education like they do in Europe.

    That should probably read – “Yet another reason why society should subsidize university education for a small percentage of students who have to pass rigorous tests, like they do in Europe.” – which is to say that subsidies would be best withdrawn if you want a college education to be more widely affordable. It’s the subsidies, to a very large degree, that’ve relentlessly driven up the cost of a college education by obviating efforts to hold down costs.

  22. Isn’t that what technical schools are for? I’m not sure how going to a technical school stops you from reading the classics but I’m only a dog.

  23. Tracy W. –I know adults who try to read the classics I read in college and they rarely hit home. One needs leisure and freedom from distractions and an open mind to get the Great Books’ full effect. Sadly our adult brains are too stirred up with worries and distractions to properly savor and digest heavy-duty classics.

    allen: I have no problem with reducing the number of Americans who attend college, provided we beef up the k-12 curriculum. Based on conversations I’ve had with Europeans, their twelfth graders are way better educated than many American college graduates I know.

  24. SuperSub: The study of classics is important because it fosters pride in one’s cultural heritage.

    Same is true about the study of the hard sciences, or engineering. Or medicine. I admire Shakespeare, but I also admire Newton and Florey and Chain (antibiotics). I find that people who only studied the classics at university have a very limited view of their cultural heritage, engineering students know about Shakespeare, but how many arts students know about Maxwell?

    And I’m also puzzled about something:
    You say ” I grew up reading Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, etc. Now I’ve seen students reading a lot of multi-culti literature… ” as if the multi-cultural literature is a negative compared with your reading when you were growing up.
    But I’ve read Shakespeare and he comes from a very different culture to contemperary NZ, British or American culture. Didn’t you grow up reading multi-cultural stuff as well?

    Furthermore, I’ve read Tolstoy, Dvostesky, Austen, Homer, Dante (well I didn’t finish the Paradise section), and I have a Tale of Genji on my reading list, all traditional great authors and all from different cultures to my own. What’s wrong with reading multi-cultural literature? I would hate to be confined to only books about my culture, one of the things I love about the classics is that they give me views of different cultures, and how people can vary in many ways and also how we are the same in many ways. And we can learn from other cultures and enrich our own cultural heritage, if Shakespeare had only drawn from English culture and not drawn on such multi-cultural sources as the Italians, Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, the Scots (Macbeth), etc, our own cultural heritage would have been diminished surely.

    I think the PC idea that everyone should only look to their own cultural heritage and that people, or in more moderate versions, children, should not be exposed to “multi-cultural” literature out of fear of wrecking the poor kiddies’ self-esteem is based on a very limited, ignorant view of history, people have at many times in the past drawn on other cultures to enrich their own. If your ancestors came from anywhere but a remote tribal village in the Amazonian rainforest or a Papa New Guinean/Indoneisan mountain range, your cultural heritage is already multi-cultural, it has already been changed by exposure to new ideas from other cultures. So in exposing yourself to multi-cultural literature you are continuing in your proud cultural history. (I don’t have any objection either to people from those remote uncontacted tribes learning from other cultures too, I’m just pointing out the contradiction of trying to preserve a culture by avoiding multi-cultural stuff when the culture was formed in the first place in part by interactions with other cultures).

    And new books *do* get added to the Canon over time, for example Fitzgerald was only born in 1986, after the start of the development of the Canon, so if he can be added, why not other authors? Do you think that good quality authors stopped being produced at some date after Fitzgerald?

    Ben F – I just read Crime and Punishment last year for the first time, on top of a full-time job, and it was amazing, mind-blowing. I’ve also belonged to a book club in the past, and enjoyed it greatly and am rejoining one this year. I didn’t take English at university, but I did have to take English at high school, and I found it boring, compared with what I get from my own reading and sharing with like-minded people. Now perhaps I just had a run of bad teachers in English class and -perhaps if I had done English at university I would have had a far more fantastic experience. But the people I know who did do English at university don’t appear to have enjoyed it any better than those who did sciences or professional subjects (some loved it, but then some loved the sciences or professional subjects), and I’ve never managed to learn maths outside of a formal classroom setting while I do enjoy reading the classics separately.

  25. Tracy – I seem to not have correctly stated my point. You are right in that technically I did read plenty of literature from other cultures and that it does provide a needed balance of perspective. My intent was to communicate a stark lack of literature from our own cultural heritage, where students can’t even recognize names like F Scott Fitzgerald.
    Regarding the sciences comment (I have a BS in Neurobio and teach science) I agree that they also foster pride. On the other hand, not to knock the liberal arts, it seems that an engineer would find Shakespeare more accessible than a philosophy major would find Newton.


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