“Degrees to Nowhere”?! – I Beg to Differ!

By Stephanie A. Malin

Given last month’s blog topic – and recent comments by Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson that degrees such as sociology, psychology, and philosophy are “degrees to nowhere” – my blog this month focuses on the vital role played by humanities and social sciences in higher education. As a PhD Candidate in Environmental and Development Sociology, and as an instructor of undergraduates at Utah State, I feel I have a personal and professional stake in showcasing the value of knowledge imparted by sociology, philosophy, psychology, and other social sciences and humanities.

First, as a sociologist, I want to clarify what it is that I, and we, do. Sociologists study how people behave in groups, from small-group interactions to institutions to entire global systems, like economic and political structures. Many of us trace the emergence and development of social movements in these contexts and tie them to historical trends. We also analyze power structures to better understand the impacts of growing inequality, effects of environmental pollutants, or shifts in labor markets. Sociologists try to represent marginalized voices while recording massive social changes occurring in the face of globalization, rapid technological progress, shifting political structures, and environmental degradation. Thus, I fail to understand how sociological knowledge – which records empirical social change and offers theoretical explanations for patterns emergent in society, so that we may form more equitable policy – can be framed as frivolous or less important that any of the “hard” sciences. Clearly, Sen. Stephenson did not pay attention in his sociology course(s), or as a leader navigating constituents through a particularly difficult historical period for our country, he would have a greater appreciation for what the discipline imparts…

All humanities and social sciences offer additional “training” in college that gives people a sense of historical context, cultural literacy, and challenges our students to think critically about the world they will soon be entering as adults and, yes, workers. Yet, advanced education should not just prepare our students to find meaningful, lucrative employment, but also guide students who are still shaping their ethical codes and oftentimes political and social outlooks. I believe this is one of the greatest gifts we are given as college instructors, to encounter students at a time when many of them are forming their worldviews as adults. Thus, classes offered in a university setting must teach not only technical knowledge, but social and political awareness and critical thinking capabilities as well. These latter skill sets make people more capable workers and more informed citizens.

For example, in my Sociology of Environment course, we study how to become more media literate consumers. I have students analyze historical trends in advertising and media ownership, their own consumption patterns, and related environmental impacts. Through in-class discussions and exercises, outside interactive assignments, and current readings in environment and economics, students in my class learn how to critically analyze sources of their information in an information-saturated world.

I also teach an upper-level Social Statistics course. Believe it or not, many sociologists know how to do math, even statistics. Some of us even do fancy things like Structural Equation Modeling and other complex statistical techniques in research programs attempting to understand global issues like HIV/AIDS rates, patterns in the global recession, or trends in income inequality in the US. In classes such as Social Statistics, students learn skills enviable on the job market for a business, accounting firm, or even agencies such as the Census Bureau or local criminal justice systems. A female student in my summer 2010 Statistics class graduated in August but – in this employment climate – had already been hired full-time as a researcher for the Cache Valley branch of the National Children’s Study. According to her, her statistical skills earned her this job. While anecdotal, I have abundant examples of similar situations, as I know my fellow Sociology instructors do. This evidence directly counters Senator Stephenson’s argument that degrees such as sociology are ‘degrees to nowhere.’

Finally, I assert the above illustration makes a strong case that cuts made to higher education funding – and where they are targeted – are premised on a misguided understanding of what a university does and what sort of vital skills are valued in today’s job market. Of course, technical and engineering degrees provide important skill sets. But higher education is not a zero-sum game; the value of science and engineering degrees does not negate the value of social science or humanities degrees or courses. Instead, they should complement one another, helping create well-rounded, articulate employees and citizens. After all, employers value critical thinkers and articulate communicators, especially in the longer term, whether they run an engineering firm, financial institution, or natural gas extraction operation. Instead of providing students with “degrees to nowhere,” social scientists and humanities practitioners help cultivate students who will earn more over the course of their careers (eg., see Cooper, hardnewcafe.usu.edu), while enriching our economy and society with articulate communicators, critical thinkers, and proactive citizens.