On those wasteful humanities majors…

Will Wilkinson defends subsidies for non-STEM majors against Alex Tabarrok:

Speaking of human welfare, I wonder why Mr Tabarrok is so fixed on the role of education as an input to production but so uninterested in it as a form of consumption, whence all welfare flows. The fact that the percentage of students studying science, engineering, technology, and maths has declined, despite the fact that salaries for graduates with these majors are handsome and steadily increasing, ought to be very telling, especially to an economist. It’s important to note that everyone knows that engineering jobs are far more plentiful and remunerative than jobs in ballet companies. If we faithfully apply the economists’ idea of “revealed preference”, it seems we should infer that students decreasingly care to use their time at university preparing to land highly-paid jobs. We might even infer that parental/taxpayer pressure to do so has declined. I know I didn’t think I was making some kind of mistake studying in art instead of biology, because art is fun and putting test-tubes in a centrifuge is a perfectly awful way to waste one’s life, unless you happen to like that sort of thing, and, clearly, most of us don’t.

What is economic growth for, anyway? It’s for expanding our choices and making life better. Is it really so surprising that, as we grow wealthier as a society, more and more of our young people, when the amazing resources of the modern university are put at their disposal, choose to use them learning something satisfying and enriching and notfor anything except cherishing the rest of their lives? Is it really so surprising that taxpayers are not in revolt over the existence of poetry professors?

As we grow wealthier as a society, we also devote ever more money and time listening to music, attending performances, reading books, watching film and TV. Somebody has to make this stuff, and I’m certain its full value is not captured in the economists’ growth stats. I spent last evening reading a fine Pulitzer prize-winning novel by a graduate of a state-university creative-writing program. I appreciate everything math majors do for us. I really do. But, as far as I know, a math major has never made me cry.

1 Comment

  1. I haven’t been to look see what set this off, but I’d point out first that one generally doesn’t need to be a “graduate of a state-university creative-writing program” to be a good and/or successful writer. Nor does one need a degree to be successful as any other kind of artist. By comparison, self-taught mathematicians and scientists are rather thin on the ground. Is that as it should be or should we insist that we will only consider novels written by graduates of creative writing? Might not that lead to a rather samey lietrary culture? Conversely, why do we expect scientists to be graduates? Doesn’t that lead to a rather samey scientific culture?
    On the wealth thing: I agree that it’s all about “expanding our choices and making life better”. But if the highest virtue is “learning something satisfying and enriching and not for anything except cherishing the rest of [our] lives”, is material wealth really all that important anyway? Couldn’t we do all that just as well living in a state of nature?

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