In a speech delivered to workers in Wisconsin last year, US President Barack Obama kindled a controversial debate on the value of an art history degree, and the liberal arts in general, when he “promise[d]… folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” I am studying art history and literature at NYUAD, but until the journalistic fallout from this comment, I had never thought about what statistical analyses predict I will earn after college: comparing my future salary to that of a trade worker was an especially novel and shocking exercise.
That is not to say my peers studying finance or engineering do not use my majors as the set-up for punch lines about living in my parents’ basement or serving veggie burgers. But, naive as it sounds, I had never seriously considered college as a place to do anything other than study what I love so that, eventually, I could do what I love.
The keyword in my last sentence is “eventually.” I think a liberal arts education — and the humanities in particular — provides the opportunity for students to discover what they want to spend most of their life thinking about. We stand to gain many tools from this model: critical thinking, accountability, quality, confidence, and professional connections, to name a few. But learning to think theoretically does not necessarily prepare students for job interviews or on-the-job requirements, a model that of course is not accidental. My theory is that the hope of NYUAD curriculum designers, including faculty and administration, is that students will turn into professional people, rather than people trained to work in particular professions.
Core curricula exemplify the attempts that liberal arts institutions make to balance or round out students’ educations, even as students feel increasing pressure to specialize in fields that will land them high-paying jobs. At NYU Abu Dhabi, the Core Curriculum is a selection of eight required courses that, as its website claims, helps students “probe basic questions about the meaning of life and our place in the world.” Students have restricted choice about which Core courses to take and typically only enroll because they need to tick off those requirements in order to graduate.
I wonder if students do not want to take Core classes because they are required (you say I have to, so I don’t want to) or if they are required because no students would take them otherwise. It strikes me that the courses that the university mandates for all students are the least practical: they are not introductory classes for specific disciplines, but are abstract by design. Students often express regret that their curricula are far removed from the everyday realities they expect in their futures. “I’m never going to have to do this in real life,” I’ve heard my friends say about dreaded “group project” assignments — despite their professors’ warnings that “the real world” is full of group work. Regardless of what our teachers say, this complaint nevertheless illustrates the relationship between the liberal arts university and its student bodies: students often want to go and do, and universities want them to sit and think.
Young adulthood might be the best place to start thinking about my place in the world. But as a young adult, I am also energetic; I want to go make my place in the world, not just think about it. Maybe an overly keen focus on doing what I love is why, as a third-year student, I sometimes feel restless in a classroom or dorm room, “ready” to enter the world and begin what I subconsciously see as my real life.
I wonder if it is a shortcoming of the liberal arts education that I am not particularly prepared to go do the things I love in a professional setting. Some of my peers bemoan the gap in academic and professional success they have experienced or anticipate, but I am tempted to think of my college education as a cultivation of malleability. An art history degree does not guarantee a high-paying job or even job security, with an unemployment rate for recent arts graduates well above the national average, but because it is translatable. After graduation, I can turn my art history or literature degree into a law degree or a job at a start-up bringing my big picture critical thinking skills to bear on specific situations. But those with skill-based backgrounds know their specialty very well may have difficulty applying that knowledge to other fields.
The liberal arts degree thus becomes an object circulating in a “rooted cosmopolitanism,” to use Kwame Anthony Appiah’s term. That is to say, while my education is rooted in the field of my major, I can use it to navigate the world and its possibilities; I am not less prepared to try my hand at various professional opportunities because I planted myself in the art historical or literary discipline. Rather, my rootedness in one area of specialty, combined with a desire to explore, provides the tools I need to relate to and communicate with the world.
My peers, parents, and President Obama may continue to worry for my future annual salary and employability; I worry for that, too. But I value my degree as a form of intellectual currency rather than a guarantor of any real form of currency. Studying to enter careers with a more reliable annual income, whether as a doctor or electrician, is comparable to receiving a cow instead of a license or diploma. You know that cow has a relatively stable value; you can trade that cow in for a predictable amount of money, maybe more if the conditions are right. But I feel like I will graduate with magic beans in my pocket, a risky but thrilling move. Who knows what fruit they will bear. I’m a believer in NYUAD’s cultivation of a rooted cosmopolitanism, and I trust that even if my beans are not magical, they will sprout.
Veronica Houk is a third-year student at NYU Abu Dhabi, majoring in literature and art history. She is currently studying at NYU Shanghai.
Next in our Roundtable: John Coughlin, a professor of law and religious studies at NYUAD, reflects on multidisciplinarity and global liberal arts education.