When I was in college in the 1970s, a significant part of my financial aid package was a National Defense Student Loan. I was grateful but bemused. I was an English major with a minor concentration in philosophy and religion. How was my study of Shakespeare and Kant shoring up America's position in the Cold War or the space race?
If Congress had limited the loans to science and math majors, I would have been bummed, but I’m not sure I would have had a principled objection. Nor am I offended that some members of Congress wanted to replace so-called diversity visas with visas that favored applicants with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills. The case that such skills enhance national security is hard to dispute.
So does that mean I’m on board with a proposal that Florida’s state universities charge lower tuition for science courses in order to steer students to those disciplines? I’m not sure.
According to an article in the Orlando Sentinel, a task force created by Gov. Rick Scott is proposing that universities charge less for courses in “high-demand, high-wage fields that state leaders think will help boost Florida's economy.”
The New York Times sniffed out the winners and losers: “The message from Tallahassee could not be blunter: Give us engineers, scientists, health care specialists and technology experts. Do not worry so much about historians, philosophers, anthropologists and English majors.”
Liberal arts faculties are aghast at the idea of government picking winners and losers among academic specialties. My heart is with them, but I’m having a hard time articulating a principled difference between the two-tier tuition idea and, say, a scholarship program that encouraged students to major in science (or teaching or the practice of medicine in inner cities).
Of course, what constitutes an important academic discipline is in the eye of the beholder. If someone had asked me how my studying English contributed to the national defense, I probably would have dusted off the story of the University of Oxford student who was asked during World War I by a hostile woman why he wasn’t in Europe “defending civilization.” The student replied: “Madame, I am civilization.”
And so are those English and philosophy majors in Florida. So why should they pay more to study a sonnet than a tech whiz pays to learn how to write code?
But, perhaps, if pursuing a science major were cheaper, poetry might lose its allure.
Perhaps the best argument against the Florida plan is that a student who would be equally successful in either of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” already knows that a math major probably means a bigger paycheck than an English major. If a student chooses to major in English anyway, he’s willing to live with that discrepancy -- or else he knows he couldn’t succeed in a STEM major no matter how cheap the credits were.