On the Record: On the Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Social Sciences Provide a Wider Perspective

UC President Mark Yudof’s question last year, “Our businesses are doing well, but who is going to pay the salary of the English department?”, created a dustup across the 10 UC campuses.  His backpedaling about the product of a liberal arts education and the obvious importance of the humanities and social sciences only raised more doubt about the extent to which a UC education was about to be high-cost vocational training and the UC system a series of private corporations.

Moreover, students and their families, faced with rising fees and the inevitability of post-graduation debt, logically asked themselves about the value of pursuing a major that could not return a decent income. This is a logical response to bleak economic forecasts.

But it should not be forgotten that those disciplines and majors that do not “generate revenue” in terms of federal and private funding generate something of equal importance: the ability to understand how societies and cultures came to be, how they work and how they can be transformed.

The hanging of a noose in Geisel library during Winter 2010 produced a number of reactions.  Those students who understood the historical significance of the noose were understandably outraged. Because they lacked sufficient knowledge in the history of race relations in the United States, other students were clueless.  “Why are the African American students overacting?” they asked.  “Just get over it,” they advised.

This latter group of students was in dire need of humanities and social science courses.  Our historical past is never really completely past.  Its remnants reappear in our present and will resurface in our collective future.

Former UCSD professor of philosophy Herbert Marcuse once wrote: “For if ‘education’ is more than training and preparing for the existing society, it means not only enabling students to know and understand the facts which make up reality but also to know and understand the factors that establish the facts so that they can change the existing inhuman reality.”

Today, there is a real danger that students enter higher education as trainees for predetermined majors and careers.  They are fitted with disciplinary blinders and become indifferent to the pressing issues of the day and the historical legacies that created them.

But many young people sense strongly that many aspects of existing reality are unjust.  They feel the need for spaces where they can learn to understand those injustices, debate their causes with their peers and chart a course to a more equitable future.  This is precisely why the humanities and social sciences continue to matter.

— Jorge Mariscal
Professor of Literature and Co-Director of DOC

The Humanities Teach Personal Discovery

It’s not difficult for a student with a humanities or social science degree to understand the real question that’s being asked: “can I get a stable job with a degree in history or ethnic studies?”

Coming out of an elite public university like UCSD, I would say: yes. I got a humanities degree, and now I have a job.

But that question (and my answer) doesn’t have much to do with the greater value of the humanities and social sciences, as I see it.

First of all, you should know that from the beginning, the “specialization” of the humanities as a source of knowledge wasn’t intended to create a specialized profession in the Matrix.

It was designed to help people figure out ways to break out of the Matrix: to go about bringing its destruction, or allowing it to work in the service of the Human Project — a project to ceaselessly re-imagine what it means to be human, and to figure out what we have to do in order to make self-determining cultures and communities possible in a world of mass destruction, genocide, overproduction, profit-for-profit’s-sake, religious fundamentalism, environmental catastrophe, and all the psychological, political and social cancers that arise from these.

Some people get to that project through the sociological study on the use of cell phones for education in India; some get to it through the set design of a play by Wole Soyinka.

So, although my students in the social sciences and humanities end up entering all kinds of professions — from medicine and law to web content management, from journalism and advocacy to business entrepreneur or community service, from public health to education, and of course, the creative arts — my ultimate goal is not to “teach to the profession” but to give students the intelligence and courage to discover their vocation on their own terms.

Have the courage to use your own reason. See something of yourself in others, and others in you.

Think globally, act locally.

You need certain skills to do these: critical thinking, historical method, foreign language competency, reading analysis, communication, the power of rhetorical and artistic self-expression, and intellectual empathy.

That’s pretty much what we teach. The rest is up to you.
— John D. Blanco
Professor of Literature

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