“We simply do not need more poetry, gender studies or sociology majors. Starbucks is fully stocked with baristas for the foreseeable future.” (StarTribune, Monday, September 5, 2016).
This is the pull quote from this morning’s local paper that I was confronted with as I prepared to head to campus to finalize my syllabus on this Labor Day holiday. It actually comes from an editorial written by an economics professor and academic administrator that originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The piece argued that if more of higher education is to be publicly funded–as per the calls of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic party–then taxpayers should have more of a say in what academic programs are offered by colleges and universities for students to study.
Troubling though it is, the sentiment is far from new. Attacks on the liberal arts and publicly funded higher education more generally have not only proliferated, they have begun to be institutionalized in states ranging from Wisconsin to North Carolina to Louisiana. But what jumps out at me, for obvious reasons given my position and this website, is the inclusion of sociology on the list of supposedly unproductive and unemployable college majors. If this were just this one instance, I might write it off. But over the past few weeks, I’ve seen and heard sociology pop up in several such conversations and contexts. Perhaps most notably, there’s a radio spot running currently on my favorite sports talk station in the Twin Cities in which some for-profit college identifies sociology as a major that will leave its graduates channel surfing on the couch without meaningful work or income.
Obviously, I couldn’t disagree more. I feel like sociology is an extremely valuable area of study, not only in terms of the general value of a liberal arts education, but in terms of cultivating useful, marketable skills in the workplace. Indeed, with its emphasis on research, communication, critical thinking, and the realities of our social conditions, I see sociology as great preparation for a job market that values soft skills, creative thinking, flexibility and the ability to think, learn, and re-invent one’s self over time.
What’s more, the kinds of graduates we produce and the research we put into the world are of tremendous societal value as well–indispensable, I think, to making a good society as well making money. One of the points in the editorial that is the most objectionable to me is the assertion that we need fewer criminal justice majors, social workers, and elementary school teachers than we do computer engineers and statisticians–which seems to be based mainly on the fact that the starting salaries of the latter seem to be about double those of the former rather than any actual consideration of the societal value and necessity of these occupations. (Oh and by the way: statistics, methods, and data analysis are a key component of any self-respecting sociology curriculum as well.)
I don’t want to dwell on this little cloud of negativity much further at the start of an exciting new academic year and on what, for me at least, will be a day full of sociological labor, except to say two things. First, such talk should serve as a useful reminder of how misunderstood and marginalized our discipline can be. And second, if we understand it properly, such talk can also provide a powerful incentive and inspiration for doing the best work we all can do in the coming year to promote a broader understanding of what sociology is and why our teaching, research, and writing is so necessary and essential in the worlds in which we live.