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William Craft, Published February 15 2014

Letter: The whole set of college learning matters most

Recently in Wisconsin, President Barack Obama spoke at a GE plant, pushing the value of jobs in manufacturing (a good thing), but he couldn’t stop himself from suggesting that such jobs held more promise than going to college and majoring in art history. I suspect he regretted his remark the moment he said it (“I don’t want to get a bunch of emails”), but he joined a long line of political figures who have turned deriding the arts, humanities and human sciences into a bipartisan sport. Gov. Mitt Romney targeted English majors; Rick Scott in Florida scoffed at anthropology; Pat McCrory dissed gender studies in North Carolina.

Who cares? Everyone who wants our country to prosper, one by one and all together, ought to. These jibes arise because politicians think they will appeal to us, especially now, when many families worry about the return on investment for a college education. But these statements are built on a falsehood: The record shows that college grads who have majored in the fine arts, the humanities and the human sciences do well.

The study just completed by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Association of American Colleges and Universities – based on U.S. Census data – reveals that while students with such majors usually make less initially than those from programs directly linked to one profession, by the time they reach their peak earning years, they have on average surpassed them. In fact, students who graduated with such majors are more likely to get advanced degrees, for which their average earning bump is nearly $20,000 per year. The point is not to choose art instead of accounting – or vice versa. No. We need talented graduates from all fields – the traditional arts and sciences and pre-professional programs. Fear of poor earnings should not drive any aspiring learner away from any of them.

But there is another problem here, and one that worries me as a college president: the assumption that the major is destiny. For some students, a major can lead straight to a job. But for most, the major serves chiefly to develop discipline – the capacity to look hard at a set of problems and persist in trying to solve them. And for students in all majors, it is the whole of their college learning that matters most. Across the arc of college, they learn the skills of inquiry, discovery, communication and the capacity to address the muddy, unscripted challenges of real life. And from there they find themselves with not one but many possible paths to jobs, earnings and the security they bring.

What is more, students at a liberal arts college like Concordia – no matter what their major – grow to see themselves not only as future earners but also as citizens, with the chance to make their homes and towns, their country and their world a place where all may thrive. Thank goodness for that, and thank goodness that we live in a nation where we prize that chance – even if our leaders sometimes forget it.

By the way, here is what art history majors from Concordia College are doing for a living: They are bankers, artists, professors, pastors, therapists, educational fundraisers, sales reps, graphic designers, construction company owners, on and on. They are citizens who together with their neighbors – those who work in factories, on farms, on building sites, in court rooms and classrooms, in laboratories and studios – strive to fulfill the American dream of strength, of beauty, of a full human life.

Craft, Ph.D., is president, Concordia College, Moorhead.