Sunday, January 08, 2012

Art History: The Practical Major

Those who suggest an art history major is necessarily impractical need to update their census data and learn something more about the economy. Virginia Postrel explains, in How art history majors power the U.S. economy, an article that also appeared in today's Washington Post.  Some highlights:
The higher-education system does have real problems, including rising tuition prices that may not pay off in higher earnings. But those problems won’t be solved by assuming that if American students would just stop studying stupid subjects like philosophy and art history and buckle down and major in petroleum engineering (the highest-paid major), the economy would flourish and everyone would have lucrative careers.  That message not only ignores what students actually study. It also disregards the diversity and dynamism of the economy, in good times as well as bad.
The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable.
Postrel does not mince words. The stereotypical wisdom about college majors "misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future."  In other words, supposedly hard-headed wisdom about what you're "supposed" to major in just isn't hard-headed enough.