I am sick to death of giving the same talk to parents, students, and the administrators at my university about the value of the liberal arts. How can there be value, they ask, if there is no clear job after graduation? What will the students be trained to do if they study social sciences and humanities? No one is satisfied with our answer that we will teach students to read, write and think critically. Will critical thinking pay the rent?
The parents are scared for their children’s economic future, and so they scare their children. The workplace has changed, and that makes everyone uneasy. It’s hard to imagine having to reinvent yourself in the adult career landscape as is now clearly the case. Technology alone means skills taught today cannot hold up over the increasing lifetime of an average American adult.
But now, thanks to Donald Trump, I can sweep aside the old story because if one thing is abundantly clear to me, it’s that Donald Trump did not have a liberal arts education.
How do I know? Because the one thing that liberal arts guarantees to do is to reveal how subjective the world actually is. If you have had any social science or humanities class, you know that “good” and “evil” are never pure characterizations. You also know that not every problem has a clear answer and, often, solutions carry unintended consequences.
Liberal arts majors know that every situation in the social world has a history — sometimes hidden, sometimes not — that constrains the set of solutions we can pursue. They also know that while markets produce great ideas, products, and employment, they also can fail miserably. When markets fail, the public sector can (and should) compensate. The non-profit sector also generates some of the best ideas for working with markets, governments, and communities.
Trump, however, comes from a different place entirely. Things are “great” or “terrible,” people are “liars” or “the best.” Solutions are simple (build a wall) and the consequences are always anticipated (get good-paying jobs for Americans). Black or white, success or failure, good or bad — Trump’s world is full of clear choices and easy answers. He represents the biggest problem in business school education. Each person and thing is an asset or a liability, and the goal is to reduce liabilities.
Trump would fail just about any political science class I have ever taught. Democracy sounds like an easy concept. People have rights, people are equal, and so whatever the majority wants is best for most. Sometimes, this leads to oppression of minorities. Where’s your equality then? And while everyone has equal rights in the U.S., whether you can actually use them or not depends on your class, race, gender, and ethnicity.
The importance of those factors also depends on the situation. Even when we apply scientific methods to the study of social phenomena, we have a great deal of trouble identifying one specific cause for any event. If we think we know the cause of anything, we’d have to have clear and convincing evidence to prove it.
We are paying the price for buying into the idea that higher education should train our children instead of educating them. They hear the message that being personally responsible means casting yourself in a mold valued by today’s marketplace. Whatever gets in the way of that mission is “fluff” and “a waste.”
We built Trump supporters. We told them that studying history, literature, sociology, and philosophy won’t “get you anywhere.” After all, the purpose of these fields is to challenge what you think are “truths,” and that is not what employers want.
What I want is much murkier indeed. I often say that I do not teach political science, I teach students. I teach students, because I want them to be good citizens, and good citizens know that democracy requires thoughtfulness, empathy, and action. You can learn about this in a liberal arts course near you.
Robin Kolodny is a professor of political science at Temple University and author of “Pursuing Majorities: Congressional Campaign Committees in American Politics.”