More on liberal arts education and skills

at 11:44 AM ET, 02/21/2012

To clarify something from my column on Wall Street and the Ivy Leagues, I don’t think a liberal arts education is useless, or without valuable skills to impart. As Matt Yglesias says, a liberal arts education will leave you “pretty good at reading and writing documents in the English language,” and that’s a real skill with a variety of useful applications. But it’s not the skill college seniors know that they’ve acquired.

Bryce Swanson, student body president at Eureka College, wears his 2011 graduation glasses while waiting for his diploma during commencement in Eureka, Ill., May 14, 2011.(AP Photo/Peoria Journal Star, Ron Johnson) (Ron Johnson - AP)
Let’s say you’re a history major with a specialization in 18th century Europe from Yale. It may be that, from the economy’s perspective, your time at Yale taught you to think, research and write, which are all skills that can be used in a wide variety of upper-management positions. But that’s not what you think your time at Yale taught you. You think your time at Yale taught you about 18th century Europe. That’s what you spent all your time studying. That’s what you got graded on. And that’s why you’re nervous. There aren’t all that many jobs out there asking for a working knowledge of the Age of Enlightenment.

So if you want to apply to a job at, say, Sony, your degree is something you have to explain away. It’s not something that makes you an obvious candidate to climb the corporate ladder at one of the world’s largest electronics companies -- even though you perhaps are an obvious candidate to climb the corporate ladder at one of the world’s largest electronics companies. And that’s a problem. There’s a mismatch between what you can do and what you know you can do.

Wall Street’s innovation, as I see it, is recognizing that asymmetry of talent and direction,and the immense anxiety it produces. Kids coming out of the Ivy League have skills. They realize that those skills are, in many cases, unrelated to their majors, which is why Goldman Sachs hires graduates in English literature to trade bonds. And so they’re aggressively going in and telling European history majors that it’s all fine, that they’re more than good enough, and that if they come to Wall Street, they will undergo an alchemical process which leaves them somehow properly prepared to compete in the global economy. And though that might not be a process these kids really need to go through, it’s one they still think they need to go through, and so it’s an appealing pitch.

It’s just Wall Street, of course. Teach for America, and management consulting, and law school, have all realized something similar. But it’s a problem that so many kids are leaving college feeling like they don’t have the skills necessary to effectively and confidently enter the economy.

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