The Cost of a Good Education

NPR’s Morning Edition ran a story yesterday that has generated lively debates on their website, on Facebook, and on professional listservs. Much of this debate centers around comments made by Steve Inskeep’s guest on an ongoing NPR series concerning young people and financial literacy. The guest was Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the websites FinAid and Fastweb. For musicologists, one of his more contentious statements was the assertion that ethnomusicologists’ only career options involve joining the professoriate or becoming music librarians. Plenty of people took issue with that part, and rightly so, but plenty more are beginning to delve into the deeper issues that this piece failed to examine.

The comments on the NPR site have centered primarily around economic issues and the financial viability of ethnomusicology and other fields in the humanities and social sciences. That’s a perfectly smart conversation to be having, particularly given that those of us who choose to pursue careers in these fields need to seriously consider how to be financially solvent. But where and when is that not the case? In what field do people not need to consider these issues? As long as lotto winners remain a small sector of the population, these are rather quotidian considerations for everyone.

One stream of argument in particular is important to highlight in this debate: the notion that arts, humanities, and social sciences place people in financially unstable positions or miserable careers of destitute poverty and starvation perpetuates the already rampant undervaluing of these fields. The idea that one cannot have a career or a fulfilling life unless pursuing a corporate life or a field of study in the so-called “hard sciences” remains not only completely untrue but also thoroughly detrimental to the continued development of a diverse and robust economy. As one Facebook commenter put it, “Innovative thinkers and a creative class will be an important part of American economic recovery and building a better future for all of us.” As many others expressed on the NPR site, the very journalists bringing us these stories often come directly out of the fields of study that Kantrowitz’s commentary degrades by encouraging “fall-back” double majors or minors. In fact, one savvy comment on their site quoted the first part of the NPR mission statement, which stands in direct contradiction to the thrust of this piece: “The mission of NPR is to work in partnership with member stations to create a more informed public – one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.” I find it extremely hard to believe that such and understanding would not be enriched by more enlightened reporting on this issue.

Want to defend Steve Inskeep? Think Mark Kantrowitz is right? Hit me in the comments. This lively discourse lies at the intersection of academics and culture in this American moment. AND, lest anyone buy into the bunk notion that careers in arts, humanities, and social sciences are dead ends, this just in from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Be sure to note Philip Bohlman, Sarah Fuller, and Thomas Forrest Kelly on this list–all are musicologists, and Dr. Bohlman is the former president of the Society for Ethnomusicology.



Filed under Reflection

6 responses to “The Cost of a Good Education

  1. Steve Smith

    Our society’s desire for the cheap and inexpensive has led to the popular belief that academic study in less than familiar areas can be dismissed as unncessaary. Intensive study in any area always leads to more questions and searches for relationships to other things in our lives. We should be vigilant to defend academic pursuit at all levels. The brightest minds have often toiled out of the limelight but their work is important to all of us.

  2. Jennifer Hoesing

    I’ve said it elsewhere and I’ll say it here, too:

    I understand the importance of financial literacy and living with your means, and I also think it’s important for people to pursue careers that are best suited for their talents and interests. It’s just so unusual to hear a piece dissuading impressionable young people from pursuing fields that might interest them for the solely for the sake of the bottom line. I might expect that message from other news sources, but certainly not from one whose mission is to create a “more informed public – one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.”

    There’s no denying it’s hard out there. I applaud you, Pete, for your tenacity in pursuing a career that’s important to you. Student loans are a high price to pay but spending your life doing something you hate seems even more unreasonable.

  3. I was surprised at the direction that the commentary took on the article, frankly, because I didn’t come away from it with that sort of sense at all. Despite my major being in the “hard sciences” (computer, as it were), my minor is in philosophy and it’s certainly nothing that I regret, and the ‘liberal’ portion of my collegiate education has proven to be more valuable to me than the purely scientific part for most of life’s challenges.

    I do think that it’s high time to talk frankly, openly, and harshly to prospective students about the realities of financial life after college and how student loans are some of the best and worst loans you will ever get in your lifetime. Best because they’re fairly easy to get, subsidized loans rock, interest rates are relatively low compared to just about anything else. Worst because they take forever to pay off, you cannot get out of them unless you die, depending on your income and so forth payments can be good or awful, and you’re going to look at them years later and go, “Good god, why did I rack up SO MUCH!??”

    I know that I, for one, played an ignorant game while in school, thinking, “Bah…they’ll be easy to pay off with my $OMG salary when I leave school — who cares!” Well, I care. A lot. Not that I regret a single penny that I paid, mind you, but at the same time I’m glad I didn’t incur more than I did.

    I can only imagine the increased hardship that those who study in the social sciences feel in terms of being fiscally able to be responsible for their loans, given the relatively low salaries and so forth. I think very little counseling/advice is given to students to ensure that when they switch from that physics degree to an English degree they realize ALL of the consequences, good and bad, of that switch in paths. I know that nobody ever sat down and reviewed it with me.

    My view was that the article was prompting the above change in how we coach and handle students and to shake some realities into folks before they get out into the Real World and suddenly find that the philosophy degree that they found “so fulfilling” in college turns out to be really, really fiscally worthless in the market. This is NOT to devalue the contributions that such fields give our society from a moral and cultural standpoint, but to ensure that everyone’s going into reality with the blinders off.

  4. Jennifer Hoesing

    Here’s more interesting fodder from Pew:

  5. One of the most marked points that I’m seeing in the Pew survey is that the answers of college graduates differ greatly from those of non-college grads in terms of whether or not it was worth it, what it was for (skills teaching or personal growth), the difference it made in their income level, etc. And all that says to me is that it’s still a good idea to strongly pressure my children into going to college, because the fact is that you DO NOT KNOW what you get out of it until you go.

    (Which I knew, intrinsically, but the stats seem to spell it out. Good.)

  6. I’ve had a good bit of time to digest all of this as I page through the dozens of listserv and blog posts it has generated. Nathan’s point about not knowing until you go, and further until you get out, has two sides. On the one hand, that uncertainty could motivate the so-called surer bets in terms of fields of study. On the other, the intangible value of a degree might be equally motivating depending on the student.

    It has been disturbing to see the kind of arguments and tangents that this story has generated on the Society for Ethnomusicology listserv: everything from heated arguments about the value of our scholarly discourse in general to once again re-thinking the name of the discipline that our disciplinary forbears worked so hard to get accepted in university curricula.

    At the end of the day, yes, some disciplines are going to lead to higher paying jobs than others. Then again some jobs are going to be more fulfilling than others, even if they don’t pay as well. This is painfully obvious for those of us facing a mountain of educational debt, still looking for jobs after advanced degrees, and knowing they will never make us rich. However, I didn’t become a musicologist because I thought it would buy me a house of gold. So maybe eyes can be open in more ways than one.

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