Meet the Parents: History Edition


I am sure many of you have seen the 2000 Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro comedy Meet the Parents.  The plot is pretty straightforward.  Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Stiller) is a nurse who tries to win the approval of his fiance’s father Jack Byrnes (De Niro), an overprotective retired CIA intelligence officer.

In one of the story lines, Greg is mocked by Jack and his friends for pursuing a career in nursing instead of a career in medicine.  Greg, however, likes nursing.  It is a career that allows him to be more involved in patient care than the average doctor.  Greg followed his passion and his love of service into nursing instead of pursuing a medical career that would probably have made him more money.

The analogy is by no means perfect, but I thought about Jack’s response to Greg’s decision to pursue nursing when I read Steven Perlstein‘s article in yesterday Washington Post.  The article is titled “Meet the Parents Who Won’t Let Their Children Study Literature.”  The subtitle is also revealing: “Forcing college kids to ignore the liberal arts won’t help them in a competitive economy.”  It is one of the best popular pieces I have read on the value of the liberal arts and the parents who will not let their kids study them.  I do not meet these parents very often, but I do hear their thoughts about liberal arts education through what their kids tell me.  Just yesterday, for example, I talked to a first-year student who was torn between his love of history and his parents’ desire that he pursue a professional major.

This article adds to what I have been trying to do for years here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Pearlstein, a Post business writer and public affairs professor at George Mason University, shatters the myth that liberal arts and humanities majors cannot succeed on the job market.

Here is a taste:

When I assigned an 800-page biography of Andrew Carnegie for a new undergraduate course on wealth and poverty at George Mason University a few years ago, I wasn’t sure the students would actually read it. Not only did most of them make it to the end, however, but many thanked me for giving them the chance to read a popular work of history. Curious, I inquired how many were history majors. Of the 24 honors students in the seminar, there were none. English? Philosophy? Fine arts? Only one. How was this possible? I asked. Almost in unison, half a dozen replied: “Our parents wouldn’t let us.”

The results were similar when I surveyed freshmen in another honors seminar this spring. This 352e0-whystudyhistorytime, I asked how many would have been humanities majors if the only criteria were what they were interested in and what they were good at. Ten of the 24 raised their hands.

I was aware, of course, of the drift toward pre-professionalism on college campuses, of widespreadconcern over student debt, of stories about college-educated baristas living in basements, of governors threatening to cut off state funding for French literature and anthropology. Even so, I found it shocking that some of the brightest students in Virginia had been misled — by parents, the media, politicians and, alas, each other — into thinking that choosing English or history as a major would doom them to lives as impecunious schoolteachers.

And it’s not just at state schools like Mason. Harvard University professor Jill Lepore recalled hosting an information session at her home for undergraduates interested in a program she directs on history and literature. One student who attended, Lepore told the New York Times, kept getting text messages from her parents ordering her to leave the meeting immediately.

“I have heard from many different colleges that there is now a considerable — and disturbing — amount of parental pressure against the liberal arts,” reports Debra Humphreys, a senior vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. One reason for the “explosion” of double majors — as high as 40 percent of students at some elite schools — is that students want one major to satisfy Mom and Dad and another to satisfy their own interests, she says.

Parents are becoming more deeply engaged in nearly every aspect of their children’s lives, and it’s carrying over even to their choice of major. “A lot of our students feel parental pressure to go into business, economics, medicine,” says Christy Buchanan, who heads the office of academic advising at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University, a traditional liberal arts college that recently announced new programs in biomedical sciences and engineering. Buchanan, a psychology professor who studies the role of families in adolescent development, says this is what “helicopter parenting” has come to.

Read the entire article here.  I particularly liked this part of the piece:

For me, there’s nothing more depressing than meeting incoming freshmen at Mason who have declared themselves as accounting majors. They’re 18 years old, they haven’t had a chance to take a course in Shakespeare or evolutionary biology or the history of economic thought, and already they’ve decided to devote the rest of their lives to accountancy.

2 thoughts on “Meet the Parents: History Edition

  1. Nick: While your comment is a bit over the top, I do think there is a kernel of truth in it. I too wish there was more diversity in higher education–especially in the humanities. But there are also plenty of schools–whether they be Christian schools or schools that value Great Books or conservative-oriented schools like Hillsdale or Grove City–which might offer a perspective more to your liking. I wonder–would the “six figure sum” that you mention above be worth it at one of these institutions if your son or daughter wanted to study humanities?


  2. Maybe because the parents don’t want to sign off on a six-figure sum for an education that will result in a child who is unable to: describe any situation in any frame of reference other than the au courant social justice framework; perform simple arithmetic; differentiate between Jackson Pollack and Titian; think coherently; etc.

    With a very few exceptions, colleges of Liberal Arts have so debased their degrees they are simply a waste of the student’s time and money.


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