by Shawn Rossiter

From his recent statements that degrees in the liberal arts are “degrees to nowhere” Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson (R, Draper) appears to be either:
1) disappointed in himself
2) a “liberal”
3) a seer
Or possibly all three. Disappointed because his own bachelor’s degree in psychology has apparently gotten him nowhere; a “liberal” because he would like Utah to act as a nanny state and tell its citizens which degrees they should pursue; and a seer because in a world where economies can be revolutionized in the time it takes the average student to graduate he knows what type of training the prospective graduate will need to remain employed for the next four or five decades.


I can agree with Senator Stephenson that having more individuals trained in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) will help the state of Utah. In fact, that college graduates, regardless of their degrees, had more training in these fields would be a boon. That they had better training in whatever field they choose wouldn’t hurt. But to think, as the Senator seems to, that the 14% of graduates from state schools who earn degrees in the liberal arts are headed for a dead end is, well, dumb. It demonstrates a lack of critical thinking — which is surprising, because the Senator has a background in the liberal arts; which is where, according to recent studies, the best critical thinkers are produced.

In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, published by the University of Chicago Press, Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, examine recent studies and conclude that for many students college is doing little to improve their cognitive skills in key areas. They found, though, “that students majoring in liberal arts fields see ‘significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.'”

So, you’re dad may be right — knowing whether Shakespeare concluded his career with “The Tempest” or some other play will be of little use to most employers; but what he may not understand is that the ability to coherently argue your case, using evidence and complex reasoning, will be welcome in many fields.

Planning your future is a tricky business. A neighbor of mine got an advanced degree in microbiology only to learn that he would make about as much as . . . an arts administrator. So, because he discovered he could make a lot more money writing and litigating the patents for discoveries in microbiology than he could making those discoveries, he went into the law (where the most common preparatory degrees for applicants are in the liberal arts). Or there is the other neighbor who earned an engineering degree only to find that the jobs he was doing were boring him to death. He opted to start his own business, in sales, and also began collecting and trading art.

Knowledge progresses. Economies develop. Technologies change. But the ability to think critically, use complex reasoning and communicate well are skills you can take with you the rest of your life, no matter what field you enter (they are not bad traits for members of a democracy either).

The point is that Senator Stephenson’s comments, given before the Senate Education Committee he chairs and repeated in an interview with the Deseret News, are jingoistic, simplistic and demonstrate a lack of critical thinking. But I for one am willing to forgive him his clumsy thinking (his votes are another matter). And that’s because he hasn’t had the advantages I’ve had. When he went to grad school he only studied Public Administration. I studied Comparative Literature.


You can read the original Salt Lake Tribune article here.
Sean Means’ response to the Senator appears here.
The interview with the Deseret News in which the Senator defends his comments appears here.
An article on Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses appears here.