a little lunchtime rant

July 17th, 2010

Ugh. This is what happens when you let little people run your country. I’m totally with the philospher quoted in this article. Far too few people realise this, but a humanities degree most certainly does impart skills that are immediately useful to life in the real world. It’s extremely frustrating that anybody should be forced to explain that statement. I understand that many fields of  university study do include some measure of vocational training – medicine, law and engineering spring most immediately to mind. But the idea that the humanities are somehow useless or impractical is utterly absurd and really should be banished from polite society, left to languish alone somewhere on a subantarctic island populated only by seabirds and seals.

But there’s more. Universities are not, and were never meant to be, institutes of vocational training or job factories. They are institutes of academic and scientific inquiry. Their purpose is to expand intellectual horizons and add to the sum of human knowledge and understanding. If it’s vocational training you want, go to a polytech or do an apprenticeship. If an expanded mind is what you want, university is and must always be the place for you.

What’s more (“what’s more”? My wife is affecting my English as well as my Chinese?), sending signals to high school students about which degrees are likely to be most welcomed when they graduate and start the Great Job Hunt won’t actually help anybody find a job. It’s not uncommon for the most popular majors – frequently chosen because of the perceived demand for them in the job market – to have surprisingly low employment rates. The reason is, everybody runs for those majors thinking they’ll step out of their last exam, and after a stop by the local student pub to celebrate, walk straight into some super-duper fancy job with a spectacularly high salary. The result is a major glut of graduates in those majors, driving down job prospects and starting salaries for those graduates. I guess the classic example would be: Just how many gazillion excess lawyers does America have? Enough to get a pretty respectable start in filling in the Marianas Trench?

No. I can understand tying a certain component of polytech funding to graduate employment rates, so long as it is only one on a long list of measures of polytech performance, as the whole point of polytechs is vocational training. But not universities. Universities must be protected as institutes of free and wide-ranging intellectual and scientific inquiry and exploration, and part of the reason is precisely to ensure the job prospects of graduates.


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