Higher Education

the “robot-ready” humanities

So I’m in the midst again of another well-intentioned effort to communicate the value of liberal arts (specifically English) majors and was introduced to this report, “Robot Ready: Human+Skills for the Future of Work,” by the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and ESMI, which is a firm involved in economic modeling. I want to start here by looking as some charts from the report and seeing if you see the same thing I do.

So this is fairly straightforward and mostly not surprising. Liberal arts majors make less money. Dog bites man. You can wonder about that spike in the late 30s/early 40s. More on that in a minute.

If you’re familiar with this kind of graphic (if not it’s a Sankey diagram), you can see how liberal arts majors shift career areas over time. I’m thinking there is some causal relationship between these career shifts and the early middle age salary boost. There are other factors like getting some post-BA degree, changing family situations and so on, so it’s certainly not the whole picture.

Now this gets a little interesting. Basically it’s saying that 1/3 of students with a liberal arts degree don’t get jobs that require a college degree, even after they hit that 3rd job. The thing is that my own experience makes me scratch my head about all this. My first 3 jobs following graduate were 1) temp worker doing database entry work, 2) museum tour guide 3) TA. That covered less than 18 months. At least 2 of those jobs required college degrees, and they all had crappy pay. So I’m wondering what the hell we’re measuring here. On the other hand I’m a lousy test case for the liberal arts student as hardly any of them are going to end up being tenured professors.

This is the most curious part to me because we always talk about the lifelong skills of the liberal arts. Sure, English majors aren’t learning immediately practical stuff or getting certifications that will allow them to walk into a job, but in the long run… So what is here is really not good for us. The differences aren’t that stark, but if we aren’t helping students pursue careers AND they don’t feel they’ve learned enduring life skills, then how do we spin that? Wait, wait. I know. Our students are far too savvy to fall for the life skills question. They’re critiquing the hell out of that question! To which the only reasonable response can be “Critiquer, critique thyself.”

So, I know, you’re asking “but what about the robots? I was promised there would be robots.” Well that comes in the “solution” rather than the problem-posing part of this report. The basic thrust of this report’s argument, like so many of its kind, is that the humanities need to find a way to add technical skills to the education that their students are receiving. Those technical skills, plus the traditional “soft skills” the liberal arts have always provided, will provide liberal arts students with more career flexibility (and earning potential) moving into the future. It’s an observation that has been accurate for a long time and, as is implicit here, is more pressing than ever. In short, being “robot-ready” means having communication skills, ethical understanding, cultural sensitivity, etc. (gotta love the etc here) while also being prepared to work in highly technical environments with your robot overlords.

The thing is that I don’t really see an argument for traditional liberal arts majors here. I see an argument for “infusing” soft skills into STEM and business education. More importantly, I am bewildered by the notion that matters of communication, ethics, cultural understanding and so on are not transformed by material-historical processes. I mean, isn’t that humanities 101? So how does it make sense to be in the middle of a massive historical change (e.g., getting “robot-ready”) while peddling the notion that the liberal arts and keep keeping-on? The suggestion in this report is that sure you can still be an English major, just minor in Computer Science or something so that you get some technical skills too. OK, maybe that works, in which case, we don’t need this report or conversation. On the other hand, if material-historical processes do matter and we are in the midst of a significant cultural transformation, then the same-old, same-old won’t work, right?

The whole business just seems a mess. On a national disciplinary level, in the span of my career, it strikes me as worse than ever. On the one hand, there’s a tremendous opening to address the kinds of sociopolitical and ethical concerns that have long been a focus of the liberal arts. It seems there might be more interest than ever in hiring people who understand these matters. On the other hand, it seems that we need to change our approach to such issues because so much of what we’re offering just doesn’t connect. We can blame students or technology or whatever, but in the end I think we need to see the ground shifting under our feet.

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