Monday, July 14, 2008

Is it really a choice? 

As is common during every economic downturn, articles will pop up about how hard it is for graduates of our colleges and universities to find jobs. Today's in the StarTribune includes a poll question "Have colleges and universities put too much emphasis on 'liberal arts' education?" (currently running about 60% yes.)

Students in the liberal arts discussed in the article are trying the Peace Corps or Teach for America, a public-private effort to recruit graduates into teaching to eliminate educational inequities, involving both more liberal philanthropies and First Lady Laura Bush. The article acts as if this is somehow new. When I graduated from college in 1979, the labor market was beginning to sour and job opportunities were not plentiful; I took refuge in graduate school, taking me to the career I now have.

I'm intrigued by the poll question though, as if one could have found a job by eschewing the liberal arts and going straight into business or engineering. Sure, those jobs pay well, and perhaps the jobs are more plentiful. But does one necessarily learn those skills at the expense of the liberal arts? In the most recent issue of The Canon, a magazine from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Vigen Guroian argues emphatically 'no'. He quotes approvingly from Robert Louis Stevenson's essay, "On the Choice of a Profession." Stevenson reflects on a banker who has no time to converse with him, because he is busy doing his duty as a banker. Guroian writes:
To say that �business is my duty� ignores this fact and reveals ignorance of what duty and virtue really are. That is why Stevenson quips: �Who told him it was [his duty]? Is it in the Bible?� Of course the Bible did not instruct his friend (nor does it instruct anyone else) that it was his duty to be a banker. Banking may
be a man�s choice of work, but duty impinges upon work as the transcendent obligation to do what is morally right in every location or vocation.

Duty is the �business� of being a virtuous human being. Doing business is not a duty, although it may be one�s duty to behave virtuously in business. That is why Stevenson wonders: �Is he sure that banks are a good thing?� For it can never be
one�s duty to do evil. A contractual agreement or a compelling love for making financial transactions may persuade a person to be a banker, but it may be a person�s duty to foreswear an unscrupulous bank dealing or even to leave one�s position in the bank altogether. Nothing in Stevenson�s friend�s statements suggests that he has thought through these matters or that he even knows how to begin to evaluate his position morally. He is a man with a shrunken moral imagination, though we do not know how precisely he got that way.

Finally, Stevenson�s friend does not even know why he is a banker.
Finally, the student of business is in need of the liberal arts as much as these students who go off to the Peace Corps or Teach for America. Indeed, they might serve as a substitute (albeit a very imperfect one) for what they might learn in the lecture hall or seminar. The student in the StarTribune article who majored in Chinese, philosophy and justice and peace studies (!) has no doubt that he's lacking something to "get a real job". But the liberal arts are something to help the business major or engineering student know what matters in the "real job" they get. It's a false choice.