“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.

Sociology of Environment – Not Your Normal College Course

I love teaching college students.  Absolutely adore it.  Mid-January is here, and for me this means a new academic semester has begun and teaching resumes.  This time around, I have the pleasure of teaching Sociology of Environment and Natural Resources.  My 40-some students and I discuss some of the potential reasons behind environmental degradation – overpopulation, overconsumption, global production systems.  We also spend a quarter of the class learning about and analyzing global environmental justice case studies.  After units on climate change, energy policy, and agricultural systems, the end of the course focuses on potential solutions and student projects.

Having taught this course before, I’ve learned the basic rhythms of a course wherein students think not just about an abstract subject matter but something different, something bigger and yet more personal.  Instead of teaching statistics, for example, I’m asking them to question their orientation to the natural world.  Thus, this is one of the few courses in which students feel compelled to analyze their behavior and grapple with whether those behaviors should change.  More than any other course I’ve taught, this one is the most challenging and rewarding.  Challenging because, especially at this particular university, I encounter many students who are quite conservative and think of environmentalism as a strictly political issue (and, at that, a liberal one of which they want no part).  At the same time, teaching this class generates tangible rewards; when worldview barriers are overcome, breakthroughs for students can be life-altering.   About 30 of the 40 students will think about what they read and perhaps reduce their consumption temporarily or think about driving less and biking more.  But in a smaller portion of the class, I can watch deep-seated philosophical changes take place, something I have yet to experience in other classes of mine like Social Statistics or Social Psychology.

A vivid example comes to mind.  One student in the last session of this course began the semester with his head firmly planted on the desk.  He showed up for class most days, but within about ten minutes his head would be buried in his crooked arm.  Yes, he was that student that, for instructors, creates worry and unease, even when the rest of the class may give you their undivided attention. Despite my gentle urging, this behavior continued on through February and into March.  In March, we began reading about environmental justice cases around the world.  Stories of communities touched by toxic contamination from extraction activities and production facilities.  Many times, people in affected communities will notice their contamination, resultant illnesses or ailments, and begin long-term grassroots activism to fight the extraction, the facility, or at least get basic answers for their families and neighbors.

These stories, in turns out, brought my sleepy student back to life.  During those class periods, and for most of them that followed, this particular student transformed before my eyes.  He became alert, engaged, and inquisitive, often staying after class to ask questions or discuss a particular case study.  Through those conversations, I learned this student was from a town in Utah where coal mining was the main economic activity.  He described being raised in a community where a strange silver dust covered most cars, homes, and park equipment.  He also described a debilitating condition he had, in which the discs of his spine were being slowly crushed, for reasons no doctors has been able to explain.  He told me that many of his neighbors and family members suffered from similar and other ailments.  Apparently, the coal processing plant near his home discharged methyl mercury, and people in his community noticed widespread health problems that many residents, according to my student, saw as related to coal processing.  The case studies we were reading and the class discussions my student shared with peers moved him so deeply because they seemed to describe his own experiences as they unfurled.  He encouraged his mother to join with some of her neighbors to conduct a health study and get access to grant monies for further research, and by the time the class ended, the Utah Department of Health was looking into the local claims of illness and chronic conditions.  Any concrete outcome may take many years, but the beginning seems encouraging.

While events such as these are certainly not common, I begin each semester with the hope that Sociology of Environment will change my students’ perspectives on the natural world.  At the very least, I hope it transforms environmentalism from a political issue into a deeply personal and broadly human issue for them.  From my experience, this happens the most fluidly and meaningfully in a classroom where we can all interact and where organic discussions can develop (this may even be a topic for a future blog).  Though each class has its distinct personality, here’s to hoping that this semester sparks critical thinking and a new environmental ethic for my students.  I will keep you posted….