A big part of the debate on the role of higher education in society centers around the choices students make about what to study. The function of education, it is argued, it to produce a more effective workforce, and so it has become popular to mock classes on subjects such as Lady Gaga and the Simpsons as being useless, a waste of money, and emblematic of the fickle, shallow capriciousness of the millennial generation.
One school of thought holds that pretty much the only thing worth studying is science. These are the advocates and policymakers trying to incentivize schools to prioritize STEM classes (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Advocates of STEM prioritization point to high-paying jobs in these fields and the usefulness of scientific research and technological innovation in producing advances for society.
There’s also a social component to STEM, with complaints that comparatively few women enter technological fields. It is believed that a central push for more of this type of education would help close the gender gap in science.
On the other hand, traditionalists decry the decline of the humanities. These advocates argue that a well-rounded education leads to a richer life, even when the results are not strictly observable in terms of wages or career options. The study of history, literature, philosophy, and art can contribute to an understanding of humanity not replicable by a narrow focus on mathematics and the natural sciences. Additionally, generally knowledge can come in handy in unexpected ways. For example, Apple entrepreneur Steve Jobs told a story about how an apparently useless college course in calligraphy inspired him to make aesthetic decisions that made Apple’s operating system stand out from competitors.
Both these points of view have merit, and as the possessor of a humanities degree, I have to confess sympathizing a great deal with the latter. But from a policy standpoint, I would argue that both are misguided. The reason why is that education is a market, and like all markets, order is achieved by independent decisions made by millions of people, whose collective knowledge is greater than that of any central authority. No one person can know how many shoes should be produced and in what sizes, but consumers have no difficulty finding the shoes they need in the private market. Similarly, no one individual can know what fields of study all students should choose, but if we allow education markets to function, people will get the schooling they want and outcomes will be efficient.
It’s true that right now STEM jobs are prevalent and high-paying, and that fact alone will motivate people to specialize in those fields. But if we use public policy to push more people towards STEM-focused educations, we risk overdoing it, oversupplying the market with a particular type of labor, and creating an unemployable surplus of scientists and mathematicians. The same is true for the humanities. It’s great to let students — motivated by the romance of history or the intellectual puzzles of philosophy — pursue those degrees because they think they are worthwhile. It’s quite another thing to drive people towards these majors, creating false incentives that lead them into unprofitable career paths.
Absent government intervention, students will compare the cost of obtaining a particular degree with the benefits, psychic as well as monetary, and decide what path to take. But when we try to direct education centrally, that cost-benefit analysis is distorted, and people end up with degrees that neither satisfy their own curiosity nor their desires for wealth.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.