A liberal arts education is good and central planning is bad

by Grace

To the critics of “frivolous” humanities majors and advocates who want our government to push for more STEM college graduates, Virginian Postrel responds that a liberal arts education is good and central planning is bad.

The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino,California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them.

Chemists Struggle Too

The commentators excoriating today’s students for studying the wrong subjects are pursuing certainty where none exists. Like the health fanatics convinced that every case of cancer must be caused by smoking or a bad diet, they want to believe that good people, people like them, will always have good jobs and that today’s unemployed college grads are suffering because they were self-indulgent or stupid. But plenty of organic chemists can testify that the mere fact that you pursued a technical career that was practical two or three decades ago doesn’t mean you have job security today.

The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.

The most valuable skill anyone can learn in college is how to learn efficiently — how to figure out what you don’t know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems. Liberal-arts advocates like this argument, but it applies to any field. In the three decades since we graduated, my college friend David Bernstein has gone from computing the speed at which signals travel through silicon chips to being an entrepreneur whose work includes specifying, designing and developing a consumer-oriented smart-phone app.

When he was an undergraduate, he wrote in an e-mail, his professors “stressed that they weren’t there to teach us a soon-to-be obsolete skill or two about a specific language or operating system … but rather the foundations of the field, for example: characteristics of languages and operating systems, how one deals with complex projects and works with others, what is actually computable, the analysis of algorithms, and the mathematical and theoretical foundations of the field, to pick just a few among many. That education has held me in good stead and I’ve often pitied the folks who try to compete during a lifetime of constant technological change without it.” Whether you learn how to learn is more a question of how fundamental and rigorous your education is than of what specific subject you study.

The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.

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One Comment to “A liberal arts education is good and central planning is bad”

  1. Yes, there is so much variation in the quality of liberal arts programs. Perhaps I should have titled this post “A GOOD liberal arts education is good . . .”

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