the humanities should think more like this

The popular legal blog Above the Law (ATL) recently released its rankings of top law schools last week. Their list ranks schools "purely on outcomes, especially on the schools’ success in placing their graduates into quality jobs as lawyers." Such metrics are necessary because last year "40% of law school jobs did not secure a job in the law," and, of course, "most people attend law school to obtain jobs as lawyers." Their approach leads to important assessments like the "debt per job ratio" as opposed to such concerns as how selective the institution is in weeding out prospective students. ATL's goal is to "give prospective law students a way to analyze schools using metrics that actually matter." This approach is summarized in this handy graphic.

Source: Above the Law

Source: Above the Law

I find the ATL approach refreshing because it seems predicated on the relevant, indeed obvious, observation that if a person can't get a job upon graduating from a certain school, he/she might not want to go there. Though the decision to pursue a less than lucrative career path is one that potential students are entitled to make, no one wants to wind up in that situation because they simply did not realize this was what they were choosing.

The implications of ranking In this basis go beyond jockeying for position. If schools at the bottom of the list really cannot get their students jobs, then potential attendees who want such things, but are not able to get in to the most prestigious schools, will eventually stop going to law school at all. Played to its logical conclusion, the result would be the closing of law schools. I am not certain that this would be the worst thing in the world. What appears to be keeping these institutions open is the unsupported belief among potential students that law school is likely to provide a stable, remunerative career. A system that preys on people's attempts to better their lives in this way is nothing short of cruel.

I do not have any particular dog in the fight about law schools. I only bring this up by analogy to something in which I am particularly interested: the fate of those who obtain a Ph.D. in the humanities. When looking at another field, the arguments that people often make about graduate programs in the liberal arts appear as silly as they are. I am thinking specifically of the "alt ac" notion that a) there are lots of non-academic jobs that people can get with graduate training, and b) that graduate programs should reassert their relevance by teaching historians and philosophers how to be something other than college professors. When applied to law both of these appear as nakedly ridiculous as they are. There are a lot of great jobs outside of law firms for which a J.D. is good preparation. But if you want such a position, there is probably a more direct and effective route to get there than a degree that doesn't actually train you for that job. And even if law schools wanted to train students for such positions, there is no reason to think that these institutions would be the best place to learn about them.

But I've never heard anyone say that the solution is to convince potential students that a law degree is good preparation for jobs other than being a lawyer. No one is making these arguments about law school, because they are unrealistic and misguided. They are equally facile when applied to humanities programs. If you get a degree that doesn't allow you to work in the field you set out to join, going to school was probably a mistake. Sometimes people make mistakes, even with major life choices. That's unfortunate for the person involved, but it is not necessarily a crisis. But entire systems should not be based on the need for such mistakes. Schools and programs that perpetuate the idea that their programs will lead to remunerative and fulfilling lives, but do little to make that happen, are guilty of the worst kind of cynicism and exploitation.