Feed on


With commencement season upon us, concerns about job prospects for university graduates are understandably on the minds of students and parents alike. Much of the discussion centers on the relative market value of different degrees, with the assumption being that professional degrees and those in the sciences and technology are more likely to net jobs that those in the liberal arts.

The stereotype is repeated often enough to have become virtually unquestionable. But even if we grant an advantage to STEM majors upon graduation, what are the longer-term outcomes? To my knowledge, only one serious, longitudinal survey exists to track the value of college majors over time. That would be Canadian economist Torben Drewes’ 2002 study, “Value Added: Humanities and Social Sciences Degrees – Evidence Supports Long-Term Employment Success.”

While this study does support the notion that humanities and social science graduates experience greater difficulty in the initial transition from school to work, the picture changes dramatically several years beyond graduation. Employment across educational fields is almost identical for individuals in the 35 to 44 age category. And beyond the age of 45, humanities and social science graduates actually experience greater employment than graduates from other fields.

A similar story holds true for wages, where rates for humanities and social science degrees catch up and then overtake those of their counterparts in the over-45 age group. With all the talk today about return on investment, part of the discussion should address the long-term value of investment in education, rather than its more immediate benefits.

Obviously, more such studies using updated evidence are needed, but we also need to interpret the meaning of such data, where short-term advantages appear to be at odds with long-term success. It isn’t surprising that curriculum focused on preparing for a single career will work in the short run. But in a fast-changing global work environment where unimagined new career possibilities are invented while supposedly secure jobs become obsolete and disappear, the real advantage will go to students whose higher education has helped them develop portable skills that can be applied to different career settings – skills that enable them to succeed by being more flexible, inventive, creative, entrepreneurial and able to think outside of received categories and maintain a critical, forward-looking orientation.

Drewes’ study statistically confirms the value of the kind of broad preparation many business leaders have long been urging. This trend is not going away, as recent studies by the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities make clear. My most memorable conversation in this area was with a corporate leader who bemoaned the lack of what he termed “prehistoric skills” among recent college graduates. What did he mean by this odd expression? His response was swift and sure: basic writing and communication, basic knowledge of design (including drawing and sculpture), a deep appreciation and understanding of other cultures and times, and above all, the ability to question the unquestioned assumptions, to think about old problems in radically new ways and from very different perspectives.

These “prehistoric skills” are the core competencies of the humanities, precisely those skills learned from textual and visual interpretation, philosophical and logical analysis, and the study of history and culture. These are precisely the problem-solving, communications and thinking skills that drive long-term success. More and better studies are needed, but for now it does seem a humanities degree is in fact a better long-term career bet.

Georges van den Abbeele is UC Irvine Dean of Humanities. He came to UCI in 2012 from Northeastern University, where he was founding dean of the College of Social Sciences & Humanities and a professor of English and languages, literatures & cultures. During his tenure, he led initiatives in computational social sciences, international studies and sustainable urban systems.

Article first appeared in the May 31, 2013 issue of the Orange County Register.

gvda(portrait)By Sherri Cruz, OC Register

Georges Van Den Abbeele would like to restore the luster of a liberal arts education, which many have come to view as impractical in recent years.

Van Den Abbeele, the new dean of UC Irvine School of Humanities, says liberal arts offer students a boost in their career goals by helping them think and be creative.

“The student who slogs through ‘The Illiad’ or learns how to read Chinese or learns how to think through complex, analytical logic – (he or she is) quipped to think out of the box,” he said. “Think of what we do as a laboratory for an innovative mind.”

A liberal arts education, which typically includes studies in humanities, sociology, philosophy, history and literature, is more than just developing well-rounded and broad-minded students, Van Den Abbeele said. “It’s deeper.”

Liberal arts programs aim to teach students interpretive, cultural, language and research skills, which employers clearly want, Van Den Abbeele said.

Ask any chief executive or business owner; they bemoan about the lack of skills that are critical in the workplace, Van Den Abbeele said.

Businesses can simply train their employees on proprietary systems. What’s hard to find are people who can communicate well, do research, think critically and don’t need hand-holding, he said.

“Strong writing and verbal skills, coupled with the ability to pick up the technical knowledge, are exactly what the world’s top firms are looking for,” said Katherine Reedy, spokeswoman for Orange County Business Council.

Students who graduate today aren’t likely to have a single job for life or even a single career, like many people did in the past.

Jobs tend to disappear in five to 10 years, and people go back for more education or another degree, Van Den Abbeele said.

Liberal arts majors are better equipped to be flexible, he said.

One of the most in-demand skills is foreign languages. “Students these days are aware of the global environment,” he said.

Foreign language knowledge benefits many professionals – and not just for work abroad. “Our own communities are so diverse now,” he said.

Van Den Abbeele, who knows six languages, would like to get creative about the way foreign languages are taught.

There is extensive research on teaching foreign languages, he said.

“One of the things that’s quite striking is that learning languages in chunks, a few minutes to several times a day, is better than one 50 minute slot.”

It’s also possible to create an environment for students to learn languages outside of the classroom, such as language-based residence halls, where students would only use one language while they’re there.

Native or fluent speakers could be mixed with those who want to learn the language.

It would be a great way to help students from abroad, who may feel isolated by language, to become language mentors to all of the students in the residence hall, he said.

“One thing they would have in common would be this language – it would be like multiplying the instructor force by 10 people.”

Another fast-growing field for humanities students is cultural and historic tourism, Van Den Abbeele said. These professionals must go far beyond what a typical tour guide offers and need to be knowledgeable in history and have strong research and communication skills, he said.


Georges Van Den Abbeele

Wife: Beryl Schlossman, poet and UCI professor of literature

Born: Antwerp, Belgium

Raised: Alberta, Canada; later moved to Colorado. His father designed oil refineries.

Languages: Speaks and reads French, English, Italian, Dutch, German, Portuguese and Spanish. He also knows Latin, but doesn’t speak it, and a smattering of Chinese and Vietnamese.

Career: Came to UCI from Northeastern University in Boston, where he was founding dean of the College of Social Sciences & Humanities.

Education: Ph.D. in romance studies from Cornell University in New York.

Major research: Guided the Angel Island Oral History Project at UC Davis.

Advice to faculty: Never dismiss a student as unworthy of time and attention. He learned this as an undergrad at Reed College. “I just knew this guy named Steve (the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc.),” he said. “There was no obvious signs he was going to be smarter than anyone else.”


Some of Georges Van Den Abbeele’s goals at UCI

•Find creative ways to teach foreign languages: “Students these days are aware of the global environment.”

•Connect more with other UCI schools and departments: “What’s happening in humanities is we’re becoming less insular.”

•Develop more cross-cultural competencies for the medical fields: “Language and communication skills are key for medical professionals.”

•Work with small travel and tourism agencies developing and presenting historical and cultural tours. “People who go to see a place that has a cultural or historical importance tend to know more about it … and expect a higher degree of information and quality of knowledge.”

•Maintain UCI’s predominance in humanities: “Things run well, but they can be improved.”

•Convey the importance of liberal arts degrees: “Liberal arts majors are trained in a set of skills that are transferable to almost any career.”

Article originally appeared in the May 20, 2013 issue of the Orange County Register.

Dr. Samuel McCulloch Photo c/o UCI Libraries

Dr. Samuel McCulloch
Photo c/o UCI Libraries

Dr. Samuel Clyde McCulloch, founding dean of the School of Humanities at UC Irvine and professor emeritus of history, died on May 13. He was 96.

An authority on the British Empire, McCulloch earned his Ph.D. in history at UCLA and served as Dean of the College at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) before joining UCI in 1963.

Early on McCulloch recognized the importance of documenting the history of the campus. He became the unofficial campus historian, collecting clippings, memos, records, stories, letters and conducting oral history interviews with key campus figures including Chancellors Daniel Aldrich and Jack Peltason, Nobel Laureates Sherwood Rowland and Frederick Reines, and president of the Irvine Company, Ray Watson.

His full-time career at Irvine spanned twenty-seven years, but he remained active in research for more than a decade after his retirement in 1987. Upon retirement, he became Professor Emeritus of History and was officially designated “UCI Historian” by then-Chancellor Jack Peltason.

Using his extensive collection of historical material and interviews with more than 100 prominent members of the UCI campus, in 1996 he published Instant University, a history of the UCI campus from 1957 to 1993.

Instant University was the first published comprehensive history of UC Irvine. It provided insight into the acquisition of the campus site from the Irvine Company, the struggles with the state legislature over incorporation of the medical school and the difficulties of dealing with a declining economy. McCulloch tells UCI’s story not only as a historian, but as a participant and observer of these events.

Sam McCulloch’s influence can be felt even today. As dean, he laid the foundation for humanities by recruiting and retaining world-class faculty. He chaired the Academic Senate from 1978 to 1980 and served as president of the Friends of the Library. Each year the School of Humanities presents the Samuel C. and Sara Ellen McCulloch Undergraduate Award to an outstanding history undergraduate chosen for their academic performance.

In 2009, McCulloch donated his papers to UCI Special Collections and Archives. These include correspondence, research notes, clippings, and bibliographies.  Numerous interviews from the Samuel McCulloch Oral Histories are available at the Online Archive of UCI History.

He was a constant fixture at campus events well into his nineties, keeping tabs on UCI’s progress and forming bonds of friendship with subsequent Humanities deans. He and his wife Sally were regulars at the University Club, where the library bears his name.

He served as moderator of the University Club Forum, a weekly luncheon and lecture series featuring the latest research from UCI faculty, from 1981 to 2008.

“Dad loved UCI and all the people there,” says son, David McCulloch. “He put his heart and soul into the University. Going to Basketball was a must since 1965. Performances at the Barclay and most of all, knowing his students. He was a teacher first. They will tell you that.”

McCulloch is survived by his wife, Sara Ellen (Sally) McCulloch; children Ellen, David and Malcolm; five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, May 25th at 1:00p.m. at Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Parish Church, 3233 Pacific View Drive, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.  If you would like to attend the service, please RSVP to David McCulloch at david.mcculloch@camoves.com or (949) 283-9199.

Older Posts »

Sites@UCI provided by the Office of Information Technology, University of California, Irvine