William Butler Yeats is accredited with once saying “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” It seems this idiom no longer rings true; today’s preferred education encompasses the regurgitation of technical jargon in the hopes of finding a job. People now deem Liberal Arts degree worthless; it’s too expensive and impractical in today’s job market. The sciences and career colleges are where the jobs lie. In the battle over higher education, through his iconoclastic article “The New Liberal Arts,” Sanford J. Ungar stands as a lone crusader against an onslaught of “misperceptions.”
I for one agree with and applaud his effort, although he could use some additional support in presenting some of his counter arguments. Unger first battles the misperception of the value in a liberal arts degree for first-generation, lower income college students; these degrees are for the elite upper-class. As Ungar’s imagined antagonists put it, “A liberal arts degree is a luxury that most families can no longer afford. ‘Career education’ is what we now must focus on” (191). Ungar contends that although skyrocketing tuition makes it increasingly difficult to pay for a college education it is now a more prudent investment than ever before (191).
Continuing his crusade against naysayers by suggesting that “the career education bandwagon” (191) is not a smart investment, asserting that “It is far wiser for students to prepare for change—and the multiple careers they are likely to have—than to search for a single job track that might one day become a dead end.” (191) Ungar shows the pitfalls of having a narrowly focused education. Moreover, Ungar seems utterly disgusted with the notion that an education in the liberal arts is one for the upper class, the rich and the privileged; those who are not of this stratification are better suited implementing the ideas of the elite, not coming up with ideas of their own (192).
He brands these accusations as “condescending” (192) and “prejudice” (193) and rejects the idea that the lower-class’ only duty is to implement the ideas of the upper-class. I believe that Ungar is correct on these assertions; however, Ungar’s argument would be better served if he acquiesced to the fact that a college education, much less one in the liberal arts, is not right for everyone. Higher education is not a one size fits all discipline. There has to be some to fill the factories, work the land, pave the roads and power the service industry.
Unger is accurate in saying that the liberal arts should be available to everyone and everyone could benefit from this type of classical education; nonetheless not everyone is suited for such an education. The misperception that the liberal arts are for the elite is one that has been heard before but not nearly as much as the old “employers do not want to hire people with useless degrees” line which Unger obliterates with his next argument. Ungar continues his defense of a liberal arts education by refuting the claim that employers no longer hire someone with a “useless” degree, such as French.
Showing how not only a specific degree such as a foreign language is one that is wanted by employers but the usefulness of other liberal arts degrees, emphasizing “A 2009 survey for the Association of American Colleges and Universities actually found that more than three-quarters of our nation’s employers recommend that college-bound students pursue a ‘liberal education.’” (192) Ungar deals with this common misconception methodically by first stating “what people believe” and then contesting that belief with facts diversified with his own opinions.
Although he is correct and he brandishes documented facts to back up his assertions Ungar may have missed the mark by not including actual job numbers. By displaying irrefutable proof that those who have a liberal arts degree are more likely to get a job in any field and by showing those jobs are more lucrative for degree holders than those who are not, Ungar could put the nail in the coffin naysayers.
For his next dose of perception breaking, Ungar skirmishes with the following idea: Liberal arts degrees are antiquated, the Sciences and Career colleges are where the smart money is, and the STEM fields are much better suited for today’s economic reality. Ungar contests this misperception by showing that a degree in liberal arts also includes the sciences. He illustrates that a traditional liberal arts degree includes the sciences: “the historical basis of a liberal education is in the classical artes liberales, comprising the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music)” (193). Many of Ungar’s points are valid; his handling of this misperception is deft and detailed. However, I feel that Ungar is stretching with his response to this argument. Although a liberal arts degree does offer some glimpses into the STEM disciplines, it is not comparable to a degree in those specialties.
A student wishing to become a chemist would not be well served pursuing a degree in History. In showing that these misperceptions are just that, Sanford Ungar single-handedly makes the case for a classical liberal arts education. He does a wonderful job tackling the misperceptions being thrown around today about a college degree in the liberal arts. He takes each one of these common misconceptions and thoroughly disproves each claim skillfully and without hesitation. By doing so he reopens the door to higher education. Perhaps if he and others like him continue to confront the onslaught of misinformation doled out upon the masses we can return to a world where a traditional liberal arts education is once again commended and no longer forsworn. Works Cited
Ungar, Sanford. “The New Liberal Arts.” “They Say I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing: with readings. Eds. Gerald Graff, Kathy Birkenstein, Russel Durst. New York: W.W. Norton and Company Ltd, 2012.