The perils and promise of a liberal arts education

Many people, when I tell them where I went to college while making small talk, immediately ask the same follow-up: “Oh, and you majored in journalism at Grinnell?” Well, no, actually, I didn’t. Grinnell, as it happens, doesn’t offer a journalism program. It doesn’t even offer any classes in journalism. My education in being reporter came from throwing myself headlong into the student newspaper (one year as a writer, three as an editor) and then taking internships in the summer. Did my lack of a journalism degree impede my search for a job out of college? Perhaps a few hiring editors shuffled my resume into the “no” pile using “journalism degree?” as a filter, but enough didn’t that I got a second look. My clips and an interview made it clear that I knew what I was doing, or as much as a typical recent graduate does, and I got a job.

Moreover, when I speculate about the sometimes-dismal state of our industry, I’m never terribly worried. Even were I to end up unable to find a reporting job, I’m sure I could find a job someplace. I majored in political science, but the real skills I came away from Grinnell with were thinking and writing quickly and clearly. Those skills can take you a long way in a wide variety of fields.

I indulge in this tangent by way of introduction to an interesting article from Josh Barro in the National Review. Responding to a writer making a defense of classics majors who writes, “students of Arts and Letters do get hired, and they do go on to better jobs as they gain experience,” Barro agrees — to a point:

This is reasonable advice for students at certain colleges–highly selective ones–but is bad advice for the general public. Only if you’re at a top 10 or 20 school do you have the luxury of picking a major that does (not) give you job-specific skills and still being confident that you will find a good job after graduation.

Barro notes his own experience: he majored in philosophy at Harvard, “got a job as a banker, and ultimately transitioned into public policy.” Many of his classmates, with similarly esoteric majors, are also employed outside of academia. At less elite schools, he argues that’s not the case:

But most students can’t rely on a combination of natural aptitude, writing skills and diploma prestige to land a good job. If you’re at Arizona State, majoring in Greek is probably a big mistake. Most college students should be focusing on developing marketable human capital, which means taking courses that will leave them with specific job skills. Classics doesn’t fit this bill.

This is an elitist argument to make — which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. A certain privileged elite gets to study whatever they fancy without suffering any consequences, while the hoi polloi have to study practical things or spend the rest of their life doing drudgery.

On the other hand, in a historical sense, that’s always been true. It’s only in the past 60 years that higher education was democratized as something for everyone, rather than just the privileged (using that term to imply both economic/social privilege and natural intellect/aptitude/gumption, which is of course unevenly distributed throughout the population). Arguably a larger percentage of the population is in a position to take advantage of a liberal arts education today than at any time in the past. (It’s also worth noting that while many students at elite colleges do come from backgrounds of comparative affluence, stability, and education, there are a sizable number of students who don’t — who have clawed their way into a first-class college by virtue of innate talent and hard work, and this success should not be counted against them.)

Shifting from the theoretical to the practical, I’d recommend a three-part test. 1) Are you looking for a job that requires general talents of thinking and expression rather than specific skills? 2) Are your natural abilities at thinking and expression sufficient to make that a plausible future? 3) Is the college program you want to pursue going to sufficiently hone those thinking and expression skills?

If the answer to all three of those is yes, then by all means study whatever you want. You’ll probably end up fine. (Just don’t neglect non-academic pursuits like internships.) If you’re not looking for one of those general-skilled jobs, or your natural abilities aren’t well suited for one, then you probably shouldn’t spend four years acquiring skills and knowledge that won’t pay off. And if the answer to the first two is yes, be sure to pick a college program that complements this goal.

(Note: This post was originally part of a compilation and has been retroactively given its own home.)