Letters to the Editor

Subsidizing the Liberal Arts

April 08, 2012

To the Editor:

The piece by Alex Tabarrok, "Tuning In to Dropping Out" (The Chronicle Review, March 9), is so meandering and rife with wrong-headed assertions that I am surprised it was published in The Chronicle.

Professor Tabarrok begins with the mantra that we are not producing enough STEM students in this country. For the number of jobs available to our STEM graduates, who must compete with cheaper overseas labor, we may be producing a surplus. A search for an instructor in the math department here at the City College of New York netted hundreds of candidates, the majority of whom had doctorates. As for positions in computer science, Professor Tabarrok has not been keeping up with the increasingly dour outlook for our homegrown computer-science work force as they compete with foreign workers, sponsored by American companies, who are willing to work for less.

Tabarrok believes that the state should support higher learning only insofar as it contributes to material production; the end goals being economic growth for society and "income boost" for the graduates. According to Tabarrok, "there is little justification for subsidizing sociology, dance, and English majors." Should we eliminate all of liberal learning, as it doesn't contribute directly to material accrual? We might include the author's own field of economics. What do economists produce?

We agree with Professor Tabarrok that higher education is not for everybody. It's his determination of what should be subsidized as higher learning that is jarring. A justification of higher learning that is predicated on the sole criterion of material accrual is suited to the production of worker bees. It is not what is required to develop a citizenry with a keen sense of the legacy of humanity as expressed not only through its technical achievements, but through its cultural and social aspirations as well. These are the people who are suited to take positions of leadership and, perhaps, lead us to a world that is a better one to live in, both materially and spiritually.

Lydia Gerson
Gateway Academic Center
City College of the City University of New York
New York

To the Editor:

Alex Tabarrok's "Tuning In to Dropping Out" raises excellent points concerning our single-minded focus on the four-year degree. As a society, we are too quick to discount other routes as inferior.

But we should be careful when prioritizing majors to be subsidized, as graduates of all majors can make a positive mark on society. Turn the page of the March 9 issue of The Review from Tabarrok's piece to Paul Hockenos's "Can Germany Help Central Europe Confront Its Dark Past?" Hockenos writes, "At West Germany's universities, tough-minded historians played a critical role in probing and questioning the taboos of early post-World War II years, at a time when politicians and society alike preferred to concentrate on economic recovery." Mr. Hockenos describes how this probing was essential to Germany's "forging a liberal democracy out of the ruins of the Reich."

Thank goodness for historians' impact on society.

Andy Colby
Associate Director
Advising and Career Center
Durham, N.H.

From chronicle.com:

STEM subjects are fine for those who have an interest and an aptitude for them. They have always been the focus of public education, ever since its advent in the industrial age, when the system was founded primarily to place graduates in STEM positions with industrial corporations. But, in case you haven't figured it out, not everyone has the aptitude or interest in science, tech, engineering, and math. Apprentice programs in technical fields are also a great way to ease the transition into adulthood for those who are so inclined. But subsidizing students in these fields who don't have the chops for them would simply be throwing money into the sewer.


As someone who graduated (with a liberal-arts degree) in 2009, I can attest to the wisdom of the author of this article. I deeply regret majoring in the liberal arts; if only I had picked a practical major, something that would have molded my skills into things that are actually needed by society. Instead, I took the advice of many commenters here, and I may as well have not gone to college at all. I wish I could hand back my "degree" and get my money back.

To the liberal-arts advocates: If a liberal-arts degree teaches one how to "think critically" and become a more worldly, aware citizen, why isn't it free? Does anyone actually have the audacity to suggest people must pay (huge amounts, no less) to become decent citizens? Likewise, are you also suggesting that today's poor, who can't afford college, are bad citizens by default?