In a recent Skype call with a Dutch friend, we discussed her kids and their college experience. Apparently, there had been protests on campus about costs and payments.
"How much are they paying now?" I asked, gritting my teeth in preparation for the answer. "Well," she said, "it's now about 1,800 euro a year."
My friend's kids are going to some of the best universities in the world and, in the end, that education will cost them less than $8,000. Compare that to the U.S., where the average cost of a higher education is more than $128,000 at a private school, $96,000 for out-of-state residents attending public universities and about $40,000 for in-state residents at those same public universities.
These numbers were key data points I held in my mind as I addressed a group of parents and students last week in a talk titled "The Value of a Liberal Arts Education."
While liberal arts is defined to include some of the sciences, sometimes the term is used to contrast an education focusing on the arts and humanities (English, history, philosophy, etc.) with one focusing on technical subjects that include engineering.
In spite of being a scientist, I strongly believe an education that fails to place a heavy emphasis on the humanities is a missed opportunity. Without a base in humanities, both the students — and the democratic society these students must enter as informed citizens — are denied a full view of the heritage and critical habits of mind that make civilization worth the effort.
There is, of course, another way to view the question of whether a liberal arts education has value. It can be seen as posing the question as to whether college should be seen as some kind of higher vocational training, instead: a place to go to for a specific certification for a specific job.
Here, too, I would push back strongly.
For those who go to college, the four years spent there are often the sole chance we give ourselves to think deeply and broadly about our place in the world. To turn college into nothing more than job training (emphasizing only those jobs that pay well), represents another missed opportunity for students and the society that needs them.
So, these are my traditional answers to the traditional questions about the value of humanities and arts education vs. science and engineering. From my standpoint as a scholar, I'll stand by them and defend what they represent to the last breath.
But the world has changed and, I believe, these answers are no longer enough.
It's not just the high cost of college that alters the equation. It's also vast changes that have swept through society with the advent of a world run on information (i.e., on data). So, with that in mind, here is my updated — beyond the traditional — response to the value of the humanities in education: The key is balance.
It is no longer enough for students to focus on either science/engineering or the humanities/arts. During the course of their lives, students today can expect to move through multiple career phases requiring a wide range of skills. A kid who wants to write screenplays may find she must learn how to build Web content for a movie-related app. That effort is likely to include getting her hands dirty with the technology of protocols and system architecture. Likewise, a kid who started out in programming may find himself working for a video game company that puts a high value on storytelling. Doing his job well may require him to understand more deeply how Norse mythologies represented the relationship between human and animal realms.
The point: The old barriers between the humanities and technology are falling. Historians now use big-data techniques to ask their human-centered questions. Engineers use the same methods — but with an emphasis on human interfaces — to answer their own technology-oriented questions.
These changes, combined with the ever-spiraling price of college, mean that students — and their parents — must strive for clarity and honesty as they make their choices. They should not fall into the easy traps of educational consumerism — thinking that only a "status" school will give them the opportunities they hope for to grow. There are many, many excellent schools out there. Students should be very careful about getting into debt and be clear about what the expected outcomes will be for their choices. If you long to become a poet or study Roman history, then, by all means, pursue those passions. But be realistic about what will happen when you graduate. Be prepared. And if the cost of education is an issue, make choices about those costs — and which school is right for you — wisely.
This means students must find a balance between the real pressure to find a job and the understanding that they will not get this chance to grow intellectually, morally and spiritually again. In dealing with this dilemma, I would argue that everyone should have a Plan B. One path toward a viable Plan B is a double major (or at least a minor) that spans the divide between what C.P Snow called the "Two Cultures."
In a changing world, the question is no longer merely technical subjects vs. the humanities. Instead, students must understand that the world they are emerging into is rife with new challenges. Addressing those issues will require understanding both the pervasive technological and scientific foundation of our society, as well as the human beings who populate it.
Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter:@adamfrank4