This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
I've been a working journalist for nearly a quarter-century. I'm not rich, but I provide for my family. And I'm in the lucky position of enjoying the work I do something, I know, that not everyone with a job can say.
All of the above wouldn't have been possible without a college degree, which for me was a bachelor of arts in communications.
So imagine my surprise when Utah State Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, declared that my liberal-arts degree for which I spent much time, effort and student loans was a "degree to nowhere."
Stephenson, who chairs the Senate Education Committee in the Utah Legislature, is making the argument that the state should be spending less money on college students pursuing liberal-arts degrees and more on science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM fields, to employ the hot new buzzword), because that's where the high-paying jobs are.
Of the 12,630 degrees awarded by Utah public universities in 2008 and 2009, 1,757 of them (just under 14 percent) are in these STEM fields. The humanities, or the liberal arts, account for 1,755, almost exactly the same number. Interestingly, the largest bloc, 2,205 degrees, are in business and marketing.
If memory serves, it wasn't the liberal-arts majors who got jobs at the Wall Street investment firms who drove the world's economy into the ditch. But I digress.
"I'm not against liberal arts," Stephenson said during a committee presentation last week, as reported by the Tribune's Brian Maffly. "But students need to go into it with eyes wide open and figure out if that's what they really want to do. We are losing billions of dollars because students are realizing too late that they wish they had information they needed earlier."
It speaks to Stephenson's power as a committee chairman, rather than the strength of his case, that not one of the university presidents at Thursday's hearing spoke up against the senator's argument. That argument is built on the premise that there's one and only one reason to go to college: To fulfill the requirements of a prospective employer and get enough education to become one more cog in the machinery of the modern workforce.
This premise may work out great for the employer, who gets a fresh supply of workers to crunch code, mix chemicals, and figure out new ways to wire TV sets and missile systems. It also works for the employee, who will, presumably, be well paid for his or her mental labor though the products of that labor, the innovations and gadgets, will become the employer's property.
But separating those STEM fields from the liberal arts is a dangerous step, as it divorces our technological advances from a big-picture view of our society.
It may take a computer genius like Mark Zuckerberg to invent Facebook, for example, but that leaves it to others to explore how Facebook is changing the way the world communicates. Those others may not know the first thing about computer code, but they do know how people react emotionally to change. How do they know? Because they've studied such "nowhere" fields as sociology and art.
Students of science and technology are great thinkers, able to analyze and process data that can take technology to the next level. But that kind of thinking only covers the how of progress, not the why.
To answer the why questions requires a different kind of thinking. It takes thinking that can look over and beyond the scientific data to look at history, culture and human interaction. It takes the kind of thinking that's encouraged by a liberal-arts education.
The problem with the thinking prompted by liberal arts, at least for men in power, such as Stephenson, is that asking why often leads to asking questions that upset the status quo. Questions like "Why is power only held by a privileged few?" or "Why is that guy deciding my future?" or "Why can't we change that?"
In "Citizen Kane," Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), the great editor's former underling, dismisses a reporter's contention that making money was a good measure of Charles Foster Kane's success. "It's no trick to make a lot of money," Mr. Bernstein says, "if what you want to do is make a lot of money."
It's no trick to get a college degree that will make you a lot of money. But there is more in this ever-changing world than making a lot of money.
Sean P. Means writes the Culture Vulture in daily blog form, at blogs.sltrib.com/vulture