On Liberal Education and the New Economy

This week the Wall Street Journal published my review of two new books celebrating how a liberal education prepares one for the new economy. I repost it here.

A PRACTICAL EDUCATION

By Randall Stross
Redwood, 291 pages, $25

YOU CAN DO ANYTHING

By George Anders
Little, Brown, 342 pages, $27

 

College students returning to their campuses for more reading, writing and ’rithmetic may find they’re not doing all that much of the first two—unless you count messages that come in 140-character chunks or disappear soon after finding their recipient. Breadth of study and deep critical thinking, once thought to be the crowning achievements of American higher education, now strike fear into the hearts of many parents and policy makers, who view them as luxuries or distractions. Instead they clamor for a greater emphasis on quantitative reasoning, involving ever increasing amounts of data. Students and families worry less about being on the “right side of history” than about being on the wrong side of the great economic divide between winners and losers.

Undergraduates today often crave narrow specialization in fields that they imagine will be of immediate interest to employers. Although many still sign up for classes in literature, history and philosophy, the percentage choosing to major in the humanities or social sciences (apart from economics) has been declining. Looking at these trends, a contrarian might conclude that this is an especially good time to choose a major that allows for the development of skills and experiences that set one apart from the hordes clutching STEM degrees. Buy low, sell high.

Randall Stross’s “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees” is meant to persuade recruiters to hire liberal-arts grads, while George Anders’s “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education” is meant to inspire students to recognize how a multifaceted undergraduate experience can aid them in the workplace. Both books are filled with stories like that of Josh Sucher, a Bard graduate who translated lessons from cultural anthropology into market research for Etsy. Mr. Anders calls him an “anthropologist in action,” who uses his skills of observation to more effectively connect artists and potential buyers.

Mr. Stross’s book is based on a narrow sample: Stanford alumni with degrees in the humanities and social sciences. This elite university is among the most selective in the country, admitting less than 5% of those who apply. Sure, one might say, its graduates will do pretty well no matter what they study in school. If they have trouble landing in the very best private-equity firm or start-up, they can use the school network to make connections that lead to good jobs. Even the wealthy neighborhood is a resource. One story features Jessica Moore, who cultivated influential connections for jobs by baby-sitting in affluent Palo Alto, Calif.

Mr. Stross is well aware that his sample is narrow but presents his anecdotes about non-engineering Stanford grads as being meant to show “the skeptical what is possible.” Interspersed among these stories of enterprising young alumni are short chapters on the history of Stanford, highlighting the institution’s longstanding struggle to offer both a practical education and a broad, flexible one. People interested in the history of education will find these sections illuminating, but for many readers this, too—like the rest of the book—will prove too parochial.

That said, it’s certainly true that many people find ways to add value to enterprises that at first glance seem to have little to do with their undergraduate majors. They have learned to learn, to productively reframe stories, to cultivate teamwork and to communicate in compelling ways. Skills like these—“power skills,” in business-speak—are what students in the liberal arts develop, and this is why Messrs. Stross and Anders find so many examples of young people translating their studies in history, philosophy or political science into value for others—and impressive career trajectories.

Adventurous possibilities abound in today’s economy, says Mr. Anders. Sure, technology is eliminating jobs, and increased automation can be scary. But innovation creates the need for even more people who can imagine the ways in which technology can be put in the service of individuals and communities. “The big societal challenge for the modern world doesn’t involve how rapidly engineers create new technology,” Mr. Anders writes. “The great point of strain involves how rapidly the skeptics and the hesitant can absorb each new wave.” Liberal-arts grads, he suggests, will be especially adept at helping translate technological innovation into everyday uses because they have studied and practiced the “nuanced feat of changing people’s minds.”

Mr. Anders wants his book to be a practical resource and, like Mr. Stross, provides many instructive examples. Readers should feel permitted to sample them rather than plow through them all. And though I suspect that the authors would agree with bromides about the importance of failure, there are no real failures here. Instead they emphasize that the intensity students bring to their studies—combined with the ability to translate that intensity into other areas—is more important than choosing a so-called practical major. And it remains important for a lifetime. “Strong grounding in the humanities or social sciences,” Mr. Anders writes, “doesn’t have an expiration date.” As another academic year begins, these books are salutary reminders that what is learned on campus should have its greatest value beyond the university.

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