The Liberal Arts Will Be Fine

George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok is really annoyed that people are majoring in the arts. As he complains:

Over the past 25 years the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) has remained more or less constant.

If students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering and math, what are they studying? In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

Oh, the scandal!

Part of what’s odd about this is that, well, computer science, math and chemical engineering are really hard. There really shouldn’t be that many people graduating with bachelor’s degrees in these fields. These subjects are, both deliberately and through their very difficulty, restricted to the very talented and hardworking.

Furthermore, as one commentator writes at The Economist:

He’s right that many of us hold that education is a boon to society. But this conviction is rooted less in growth theory than in a Jeffersonian faith in the importance of a well-informed, well-rounded citizenry. I have never once heard anyone complain that they are forced to subsidise the education of young people applying themselves to the study of abstract expressionism or Yeats, despite the fact that this does so little to improve human welfare.

What is economic growth for, anyway? It’s for expanding our choices and making life better. Is it really so surprising that, as we grow wealthier as a society, more and more of our young people, when the amazing resources of the modern university are put at their disposal, choose to use them learning something satisfying and enriching and not for anything except cherishing the rest of their lives? Is it really so surprising that taxpayers are not in revolt over the existence of poetry professors?

Perhaps, as many argue, the United States might be better off if more people majored in math and the sciences in college. Well if that’s important, go ahead and fund it lavishly with public money. That’ll bring students to apply to such fields enthusiastically.

But there’s no need to worry about liberal arts here. Education isn’t wasteful. Some of it is just more likely to immediately return a lucrative salary. Students pretty much understand that, and get pretty much what they deserve.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer