In the Whirled: How business killed the college experience

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 10 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Our family lived for a time on Miami Beach. There was a building craze going on at the time, and Donald Trump was busy throwing up high-rise condos along the ocean.

Every day I stared at those condos and thought, "Something is off here. There are only so many millionaires who can afford these places."

Then the housing market crashed. Most of those million-dollar condos sat empty.

I felt the same way as a Brigham Young University undergraduate when I saw the majority of students flocking toward three majors: business, pre-law and pre-medicine.

Really? I thought. Do we need more doctors, lawyers and business people?

It turns out BYU was not alone in this educational trend. In fact, in the decade since I’ve graduated, colleges across the country have seen a slow shrinking of the liberal arts degrees in favor of skill-type majors.

Liberal arts colleges are shutting their doors at a staggering pace. A study conducted by Roger Baldwin, an education professor at Michigan State University, found that the number of liberal-arts colleges decreased from 212 in 1990 to 136 in 2009.

In the meantime, “practical” degrees are on the rise. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, one in five college students are graduating in business.

I understand the thinking behind practical degrees. College is more expensive than ever. It has become more challenging for 20-somethings to get a job, even with a college degree. To put that into perspective, here’s another statistic for you: One-quarter of all fast-food restaurant managers are college educated.

So yes, I understand. You tell people you majored in business, they say “Great!” You tell people you majored in philosophy (or art history, anthropology, political science, comparative literature) and there is a pause, followed by, “And what do you plan to do with that?”

The irony is that the liberal arts used to be the foundation of the college education. The idea behind getting a college education was not to make money in the end. It was not to have a career. The idea was to develop a student into a whole person, someone who could draw together the connections from art, literature, music, history, politics and science.

It was only after World War II with advent of the G.I. bill that colleges began to lure students with the concept that going to college could earn them more money. Hence the skill-based majors were born.

So what’s the big deal? Does reading “Anna Karenina,” watching “Citizen Kane” and listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony make us better people? I would argue yes.

With the death of the college education that draws upon history, literature, art, politics and music, you create a narrow vision for college graduates. If you’ve ever been moved by Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Warhol, Copland, Woolf, Rembrandt or Tchaikovsky, you know what I mean. We teach history so we can learn from it, be inspired, and hopefully not make some of the same ridiculous mistakes as past leaders and civilizations.

By diminishing or eliminating this type of education, we risk further desensitizing generations of students who have already been jaded by media and electronic devices. They may know how to work as a team and create a fantastic Power Point presentation, but they may not know how to innovate or think critically.

Then there’s the money issue. With each passing year our country becomes more fiscally obsessed. The news is rife with quarterly earnings and the woeful plight of retailers. We’re told that to be a good citizen we must open our wallets and save the faltering economy.

This, I’m afraid, is what happens when you get too many business majors out in the world.

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