Is Religious Studies a Useless Degree?

Scot McKnight shared a link to a Yahoo! News item which listed five “useless” and five supposedly better alternative degrees.

The data behind the story seems to be bogus. A quick glance at online surveys of alumni indicates that the matter is, at least, more complex. One survey indicates more business majors unemployed than religion majors. And a look at a more reliable source, Georgetown University, suggests that there isn’t a huge gulf between religion majors and business majors when it comes to employment.

But even if the Yahoo! story were correct, when roughly nine out of ten graduates are employed, the comment in the article from its main source, Vicki Lynn, seems baffling. She says “I don’t even know what people do with these degrees to be honest. Unless they’re willing to go all the way to a PhD in philosophy, for instance, their career paths are zero.” If nine out of ten people with a degree are employed, then that statement is simply false. Worse than that, it is obviously false based on data within the same article.

So here’s a question. I wonder how many business graduates would see through the false claims in the article, and how many liberal arts graduates would. I would expect the number of the latter to be higher, since the liberal arts required courses in most university curricula tend not to be appreciated, and yet there above all else skills like critical thinking are taught, developed, and honed.

So thank you, Terence Loose, for writing that article. But it doesn’t illustrate the uselessness of degrees in fields like religion and other areas of the liberal arts. What it does illustrate is why the courses and skills taught in such majors and courses are needed today more than ever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=583664425 facebook-583664425

    I totally agree with you, James.
    DanutM

  • http://twitter.com/xkv8r Dr. Robert R Cargill

    This is always a tough one for me. On the one hand, many who come to study religion are looking for some kind of validation (essentially apologetics) or vocational training (which you can get at Christian schools in the form of counseling and mission training and pastoral ministry, but is not typically offered at state and secular universities). But that’s where the numbers are. AND, that’s where the jobs are (churches, not-for-profits, Christian schools, etc.)

    Others come to study religion as one would study philosophy or literature – and this is where the “philosophy degree” comparisons arise. (e.g., After graduation, the pre-med student asks, “Where should I go to medical school?”, while the philosophy major asks, “Would you like fries with that?”) There is truth to the idea that a philosophy degree pays off better if you become a professor, but at the end of the day it comes down to the ability to write, think logically and rationally, communicate, and have a well-rounded appreciation of the world around you.

    Yes, I do believe the world would be much better with well-trained Classics and Religious Studies majors (and yes, Philosophy too – REAL philosophy, not this Christian apologetic stuff that tries to pass for philosophy). You appreciate life better and you understand the point of view of others better imho. However, there is also a vocational value to RS and Phil and Classics degrees, IF one can read and communicate clearly: as most of the employment pool has degrees in business, the RS and Classics majors have the advantage of understanding people and culture, and ANCIENT business, tried and tested problem-solving approaches, and if a RS major and a business major are finalists for a job, then I choose the RS/Clas/Phil major, b/c while they may be the same in the accounting part, if sales really is about people, then the RS/Clas/Phil major has more openings to the partnership than does the guy who says, “I have a degree in business and I want to sell you something.”

    But I’ll fall back on this: the world would be a much smarter, much friendlier, and much more advanced place if more people were trained in logic, science, math, and rhetoric AS PART of their training, be it business or religious studies. Students who can think and evaluate critically do the best work, but they are in the minority. This is why science and classically trained philosophy and religious studies students have value: they can sniff out the BS in whatever context they find themselves.

    • http://www.facebook.com/DocteurLou Docteur Lou

      I appreciate your response, James.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    thanks for sharing James, as a senior pursuing a double major of history and religious studies I worry a lot about my prospects for the future, the stats make me feel a little better.

  • Robert Angison

    When I read the article yesterday I rolled my eyes and noted that the entire edifice of the piece relies on the belief that the only worthwhile degrees are ones which are both high paying and provide a sufficient return on investment within a short period. The article also attempts to make wide-ranging generalizations about degrees and professions that don’t work in such a diverse world. In short, the entire piece is unfounded and based on a faulty presupposition. (I guess that is one thing a degree in humanities provides, a course in logical argumentation.)

    In considering the list do we really want to tell people that social workers aren’t worthy career fields? Do we really want to say artists are not helpful because they don’t produce high levels of capital? It is such a poor means of evaluating contribution and usefulness to society.

    Though there certainly is and should be room for the scientific disciplines, I would think a great books degree would benefit more students than a business degree. Since most students ultimately end up in a vocation unrelated to their degree a rich heritage in humanities, archeology, history, art, or even theology and philosophy might provide a more suitable framework for a lifetime of learning than other paths.

    Glad to see such good comments here.

  • Melanie Davidson

    As a business major (underemployed, at that!) I have a few points to make. Business graduates are trained to think just as critically as liberal arts students (many of us are both, but that’s besides the point), in that we are required to take courses on statistics, data analysis, etc. We have to take the same sort of courses in critical thinking as our LA counterparts, except that they have a focus on business related topics. Tell me that every economics course is not, in fact, a philosophy course. Seriously.

    So, with my LA and Business eyes, in the first article I noticed that while unemployment rates for the “bad” degrees are noted, there is no mention of comparable unemployment rates for the “good” degree-holders. That’s not a good sign. If the difference were significant, wouldn’t those rates have been mentioned? I also wonder, regardless of unemployment rates, how many graduates in each field are employed “in their field”, how many have found their degrees useful for gainful employment in other areas, and how many are languishing in food service. The Georgetown report seemed to have more information about earnings, but as has been mentioned here, that’s not a good measure of success. The Yahoo article also appears to be bought and paid for by for-profit educational institutions, plastered with links to help you “find the right program”. I can’t believe people are sharing this piece of advertising as though it means anything other than someone is trying to sell a product.

  • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

    I don’t know what it’s like in the US, but over here graduate employers care more about degree result and transferable skills than the subject applicants have studied – at least for general management schemes. Before I started teaching, I worked in the recruitment industry, so I’ve seen it from both sides. I never felt that my RS degree put me at any sort of disadvantage.

    • Christian College 4 Foolz

      You may have never felt that your “RS degree put [you] at any sort of disadvantage”; but if your degree doesn’t give you an advantage in the workplace then it has to be regarded as a failure (since furthering one’s prospects is usually the point of education).

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        This seems like an odd statement. Having a PhD will give you a significant disadvantage in finding employment at a store. A liberal arts degree has often helped people cultivate the creativity needed to start or run a business, design a new product, or create a whole new line of work. Unless you clarify what you mean by “furthering one’s prospects” then it is not clear whether your statement is true or false. But the fact that many employers would prefer a Humanities graduate from a mainstream university to an applicant who graduated with very specific professional skills from a technical college, suggests that employers understand the value of a university degree differently than you do.

      • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

        Advantage relative to who and for what? My degree took me into decent employment in the commercial sector, on the same sort of level as most UK graduates, and certainly better off than most non-graduates would be. As I said, most employers in the UK are more interested in the grade on your degree transcript than the subject. I now teach RS in secondary school, where my degree comes in kind of handy.

  • http://theology.geek.nz Geoff Gummer

    I think there is a possibility we are all missing the point here. Studying for a masters, or doctorate in theology/biblical studies is like pursuing a “philosophy degree”.

    But theological/biblical studies of a formal nature is one of _the most_ crucial things ANY believer can do. When Jesus said “you must become like this child” – he didnt mean blindly believing anything you are told, he meant, you must go back to school and re-learn everything. You have to learn a new culture, a new set of new values, a new way of living – some of this can be taught by those around us, as it is in “secular life” – but like secular life, we need formal education in order to be able to function in the new world we live in.

    We dont _need_ to have a career after getting a degree, but we do need to do it to live a life. The biggest problem we face as a people, is that we are not as sufficiently educated in our faith as we and the rest of the world are, in the secular “way”.

    We give people the equivalent of an elementary (primary school, in NZ where I live) education, then say, here you go..change the world! Run a Church! Run a ministry! Run a business (like a Christian)! Run a Family! etc.. We dont expect our children to go out into the “Real” world without at least a high school education (in NZ that is 18 yrs old), yet we give people a 20 min sermon a week, sometimes a little bit of a lesson (from some unqualified person) at a small group during the week, and hope they will be ok.. *sigh*

    • Geoff Gummer Gay

      “We dont _need_ to have a career after getting a degree”. WTF?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    On a related note, here is a list of people with a degree in another field that is often considered at least as useless as religious studies, namely Classics:

    http://rogueclassicism.com/folks-you-didnt-know-maybe-had-classics-degrees/

  • Pseudonym

    Here’s the thing for me.

    I studied science. Thanks to my mother, and the fact that I happened to be good at it, I also studied a lot of music, music history and music theory. I enjoyed this immensely, as much as science. I also did one semester of linguistics, which is technically humanities, but is close enough to science that it’s kind of science.

    But I didn’t really study any humanities. Science got me a pretty good career, but now that I’m pushing 40, I regret not doing it more. I’m currently going through a phase where I’m fascinated by the Byzantine Empire, and I plan to indulge it as much as possible.

    Unless you plan to do it for a living (and not just as an academic; apparently art consultants and art dealers can make a packet, though it’s a tough world), the humanities are a general education.

    I often wonder if the financial crisis of 2007 would have happened if all those traders and bankers creating those abstract financial instruments had taken time out to think “what am I actually doing here?” and “what does this say about me as a person?” I’ve read reports about some involved (and also people involved in other events; Lawrence Lessig’s interview with Jack Abramoff was an eye opener) who had similar epiphanies after the event. That’s the sort of question that history, theology, classics, literature, theatre and all of the humanities force you to look at.

    I would wager that if you asked a typical banker how Nero’s currency policy was responsible for medieval feudalism, or whether or not Edward III mishandled the national debt crisis of his day, or what actually happened in the South Sea bubble, they couldn’t express an opinion on this. Wouldn’t we have a better banking system if they did? Wouldn’t we have better laws if legislators studied Aristotle and Spinoza for a year? At least, could it be worse than it is now?

    I think that history would be the easiest sell, though. I’m of the Dan Carlin school of thought here: Everyone likes history, but not everyone knows it yet. The reason is that no matter what you’re interested in, there’s a history of it. If you like movies, there’s a history of movies. If you like clothes, there’s a history of fashion. If you like horses, there’s even a history of that.


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