Donald Trump and the Liberal Arts Major

Higher education reform and college affordability have been hot button issues throughout the 2016 election season. The Democratic contenders have each detailed their plans for education reform. Bernie Sanders recently introduced “The College For All Act” which eliminates undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities. Hillary Clinton has proposed a similar plan which emphasizes “debt-free” education.

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has been quiet about his thoughts on higher education reform throughout his triumphant campaign, but as Inside Higher Ed reports, his silence could be ending soon.

Sam Clovis, the national co-chair and policy director of Trump’s campaign, recently told Scott Jasichik that Trump’s proposals would “Upend the current system of student loans, force all colleges to share the risk of such loans, and make it harder for those wanting to major in the liberal arts at non-elite institutions to obtain loans.”

It’s hardly the first time that a member of the Republican party has attacked the pursuit of an education in humanities. In January, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin told the Associated Press that he hoped to reprogram the state’s higher education funds, effectively financially penalizing schools who don’t produce an adequate number of STEM graduates. Similarly, in 2013 a Florida task force on education proposed that more-in-demand majors in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math should cost less than majors that are less in demand, such as those in Art, History, and English.

Many educators, however, disagree with the Republican frontrunner, arguing that Trump, and many Republicans, have a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of higher education and what makes a college education valuable.

At the center of this disagreement lies the fundamental question of whether or not subsidized higher education benefits society solely for its vocational outcomes, or whether higher education exists to nurture and produce well-rounded, adaptable critical thinkers.

For Boston University professor Jay Halfond, there is inherent flaw in the ideology that higher education exists to meet the needs of the job market. “In my view, it is dangerous and even corrupting to proceed down a path that shows that higher education ensures lucrative jobs soon after graduation,” Halfond told the education blog EvoLLLution, “But we need to do a far better job demonstrating the relevance of a broad, general education, while linking what we teach to what is critical in the professional world.”

Education in the liberal arts is often undervalued, and myth of the unemployed humanities major is far reaching. But education that is rooted in liberal arts ensures that students receive instruction in a variety of marketable skills, chief among them the ability to think critically, write effectively, and consider additional contexts – skills which are invaluable in today’s rapidly changing workforce.

Trump’s proposals ensure that students who attend mid tier state schools are not only classist, but show a lack of understanding of the role of higher education in the American workforce.

Arizona State University President Michael Crow argues:

The objective of public universities should not be to produce predetermined numbers of particular types of majors but, rather, to focus on how to produce individuals who are capable of learning anything over the course of their lifetimes... Every college student should acquire thorough literacy in science and technology as well as the humanities and social sciences.

And as ASU’s Liberal Studies program professes, studying the humanities allows learners to make connections across various fields, and apply that knowledge to solving real-world problems, while gaining skills applicable in any industry. And now that professional sector is growing to be more interconnected, students will need a broad set of skills in order to adapt.

While Trump and his staff don’t necessarily decry the Liberal arts as a whole, Clovis does suggest that there is a problem in only studying the humanities. “If you choose to major in the liberal arts, there are issues associated with that.”

Of course, politicians are operating under the consensus that America is facing a STEM crisis, which is true, and the need to advance STEM education shouldn’t be understated, as discovery and advancement are imperative to America’s progression in a global economy. But there other complex issues that our country must deal with, and will require expertise in areas outside of STEM fields.

America’s future will also heavily rely on people who are culturally competent. People that can engage in civil discourse with world leaders, and create moving art, music, and entertainment – all of which STEM from a broad, trans-disciplinary education.

“At the end of the day, the objective of our universities, both public and private, should be to create teaching, learning, and discovery environments capable of producing learners of the highest caliber,” Crow notes. Higher education’s impetus ought to center around teaching citizens the necessary skills to adapt, and utilize their capabilities.

If universities stick to this foundational purpose, in creating “learners of the highest caliber,” the next wave of innovation in American society could very well come from a liberal arts major.

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