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Will

Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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18 Responses

  1. I majored in history and anthropology, both liberal arts fields. I felt like I got a pretty good education even though I was at a ‘good, not great’ institution. After trying to make a living as an archaeologist for 3 years and tiring of working a second job to pay the bills, I started looking for another career. I now work for a very large Fortune 500 company in finance. Why? Because only about 10% or less of our workforce have degrees. Those two lines on my resume have translated to thousands of dollars in additional compensation. For better or for worse, a lot of employers respect a degree, regardless of the subject matter.

    Just anectdotally I can tell you from working with and interviewing other employees that just about anyone with a degree brings certain basic skills that non-degree holders often lack. Public speaking, writing skills, the ability to explain things in sufficent detail to others…. these are skills developed in a liberal arts program. I would take a degree holder 9 times out of 10. That’s not bias. that’s just good business.Report

  2. Avatar Will says:

    Mike –

    I agree with you about the importance of certain skills acquired by college graduates, but I wonder if four years of undergraduate study is really necessary to pick up public speaking, writing or critical thinking.Report

  3. Avatar Badger says:

    I was sitting at a Chinese restaurant about a week ago. I started chatting with a gentleman with shoulder length hair and a rough beard. I’m sitting there with a goatee and rough beard. He tells me about flying school bored out of his mind. All he did was ace the tests. He had no interest in college. He had left Chicago and come here to be a hired dairy hand. He wanted to work with his hands. I told him how I had gone to several colleges but never finished a degree. (I do have a two-year degree in IT that I picked up.) I told him that I lost interest in school when I figured out I was more intelligent than the people teaching me. I know I’m an arrogant prick. So anyway, the only two people in the Chinese restaurant are making under $40,000 and have IQs over 140 or 160. No, I’m not bragging, because, look, I’m not making all that much money. I have pilfered away my talent. Anyhow, to make that long story short, I can most certainly assure you that a liberal arts degree is a poor proxy for intelligence.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    After losing my faith and realizing that I could no longer join the ministry, I had no idea what to do… so I got a degree in philosophy with a minor in religious studies. After graduation, I had to deal with countless people asking “so what do you do with a degree in philosophy?”

    After that, I realized that I had no idea what one does with a degree in philosophy.

    Luckily, I had a friend at (multi-national corporation) tell me that, good god, they needed people in their department that knew how to type and would be able to pour water out of a boot if they knew the instructions were written on the heel. So I got hired there because, hey, philosophy degree. I knew how to type.

    From there, I kept getting kicked into more and more technical positions because, hey, I showed up, knew how to type, and wasn’t *THAT* dumb. I got taught MPE. I got taught Unix. I got taught Windows. The tech boom happened.

    Inadvertently, I became a sys admin.

    Why? Because I knew how to type.

    So if anyone ever asks what one can do with a degree in philosophy with a minor in religious studies, I tell them “sys admin work.”Report

  5. Avatar greginak says:

    There is certainly an aspect to college as a way to get a better job. I spent a lot of today, sitting at my desk, not working all that hard, watching guys across the street ripping of a roof and starting to put it a new one on. While some of them may make good money that kind of work is hell on a body.

    College does provide/build many useful work skills. But part of the college experience should IMHO be about becoming a better educated person. Now i know somebody is already thinking of saying that college or education does mean your are not a nit or know anything or are right. But education as an ideal is still worthy even if it not particularly popular. This is country where a significant number of people dislike experts, believe in creationism and berate smart people as elitist. So while college as a sort of trade school is fine, there should be more to it then that.

    An organized body of study covering a wide field of ideas, led by others who have made the same journey, sounds like a pretty good way to get yourself learned.Report

  6. Avatar lebecka says:

    “I wonder if four years of undergraduate study is really necessary to pick up public speaking, writing or critical thinking.”

    No, not really, Will. but it’s a convenient place to get them. You know, it amazes me that people think it is worthwhile to pay someone to teach you kung-fu or to do the samba, but they bitch when they have to pay someone to help them learn much more useful and lucrative skills.

    hey, if you want to do it on your own, more power to you. But just in case you haven’t noticed, most of us are not Abraham Lincoln or Bill Gates. Most people have to go to school to learn efficiently.Report

  7. Avatar Badger says:

    Gates’s intelligence wasn’t a detriment, but he isn’t a rags to riches story. Lincoln’s heritage is also not exactly a fairytale. College is just a convenient way to seperate the castes, at least in the area of liberal arts and business.Report

  8. Avatar Will says:

    Lebecka –

    The question isn’t whether students pick up useful skills at college – I think we all acknowledge that four years of school will teach you something, if only through osmosis. The real question is whether this process deserves to be valorized (and, by implication, extended to every eligible high school grad) as some sort of uniquely beneficial educational experience.Report

  9. I don’t think college is the only path by any account. It is one path. Another is technical training. Companies are hungry for skilled workers such as machinists, welders, etc. Another would be to join the military or the Peace Corps and learn some skills there. There are plenty of paths, but if we’re talking about the subject of this post….I think a liberal arts education is beneficial.

    Perhaps the best skill I developed was not my writing ability or my research ability or my ability organize information… it was establishing myself as a ‘lifelong learner’. I’ve been out of college for 6 years now and I am not bragging when I say I think my knowledge base has probably doubled. College established a real hunger for knowledge and technology (God bless the Internet) has facilitated that.

    There was a great article at The American Scene the other day where we discussed how the Internet is changing the way we process and store info. (http://theamericanscene.com/2009/05/11/your-brain-is-an-index) A college education prepares us for that IMO.Report

  10. Avatar Mark says:

    Wallace asserted that a liberal arts education made you more cognizant of the notion that “different arguments on the same point can be equally valid, depending on what presumptions or values you bring to the subject.”

    And yet, he 1) claims that in the humanities, the “canvas is painted not in reassuring black-and-white tones, but in maddening shades of gray”; 2) rejects practical skills, as though they weren’t part of the quadrivium; 3) attacks the straw man of 27-year-old entrepreneurs who supposedly run Silicon Valley.

    So, a Liberal Arts education set Wallace up to mis-characterize the nature of virtually all other fields of study, generalize about millions of people solely on the basis of their age, and reject the skills that have resulted in every technological innovation in history (not to mention the general practice of construction, medicine, etc…)

    Whatever lessons the humanities bring to the table, he didn’t learn them.Report

  11. Avatar Mark says:

    “Even at elite institutions, the real over-achievers are people who get involved in activities that are only marginally related to academic study.”

    Will – can you elaborate on this comment? I read Douthat’s piece and that’s not what I take away from it.Report

  12. Avatar Will says:

    Mark –

    Here are a few quotes from the Douthat piece that jive with my broader point:

    “Humanities students generally did the least work, got the highest grades, and cruised academically, letting their studies slide in favor of time-sucking extracurriculars, while their science- and math-minded classmates sometimes had to struggle to reach the B-plus plateau. ”

    “It was hard work to get into Harvard, and then it was hard work competing for offices and honors and extracurriculars with thousands of brilliant and driven young people; hard work keeping our heads in the swirling social world; hard work fighting for law-school slots and investment-banking jobs as college wound to a close … yes, all of that was heavy sledding. But the academics—the academics were another story.”Report

  13. Avatar Mark says:

    Will – I see what you’re getting at. But I think Ross is coming from the perspective of someone who thinks the liberal arts don’t include math and science – ignorance of eighth grade science (his comment about the periodic table) is hardly equivalent to someone else’s ignorance of the lesser Roman emperors.

    I think it would be accurate to suggest that at Harvard, as at virtually every elite liberal arts institution, there are actually two schools – a humanities program that can be made as trivial as an individual student wants it to be, and a math and science program that can be made as rigorous as any in the world. And on the math and science side, I would argue that the real over-achievers focus on legitimately challenging schoolwork and subject-matter-related extra-curriculars (e.g.: Harvard’s top performances in college math competitions.)

    Ross, for all his ability, chose the trivium, ignored the quadrivium, and then complained that his partial education lacked rigor. But my experience with people who went to liberal arts schools and studied both the humanities and the sciences is that were exceedingly well-prepared academically for the rest of their lives.Report

  14. Avatar Will says:

    Mark –

    No, I think Douthat’s perspective is that the liberal arts should be more rigorous. I don’t doubt that math and science are exponentially more difficult areas of study than the humanities, but I see no reason why that should be the case.Report

  15. Avatar Mark says:

    If a liberal arts graduate like Wallace defends it as a course of studying by bragging about its impracticality, then there’s simply nothing that would implicitly make it rigorous. Graduate schools and industry expect math and science majors to have the background to understand the content of their jobs and studies – what do we expect of an english or history major?

    What do they say about admissions officers? They want to see that you’ve taken the toughest classes you could, and challenged yourself in more than your best area. I still think that if Ross made no attempt to get a basic math and science education in college (which it seems from his comments) then he is as much responsible for the lack of rigor in his education as anyone else. If an engineer couldn’t put a sentence together, we surely wouldn’t care if he found his power electronics courses too easy.Report

  16. Avatar Cascadian says:

    “No, I think Douthat’s perspective is that the liberal arts should be more rigorous.”

    I’m sure it depends on the institution. I don’t think of Harvard undergrad as a rigorous program. I doubt that Friedersdorf has complaints about Pomona. Big name research schools are what they are.Report

  17. Avatar Mark says:

    Cascadian/16: I’d put it this way: the Pomona grads I’ve known have not lacked for “confidence.”Report

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