What is true for science is also true for the other great human endeavors. To engage with the world in search of any kind of Truth is an expression of the search for excellence. That, by its very nature, is desperately difficult. There will always be a price to be paid in time, sweat and tears. We should never sugarcoat that reality. We want to teach students more than just how to get jobs, we also want to teach them how to live with depth and for purposes that stretch beyond their own immediate interests. We should never forget that connection. If we do, we are in danger of losing more than just the next generation of science majors.
Matt Yglesias has the following to say to the idea that the study of liberal arts fails to add value to real life skills;
In order to do well in courses on 19th Century British Literature or Social Anthropology or Philosophy or American History in a properly running American college, what you need to do is get pretty good at reading and writing documents in the English language. These are very much real skills with wide-ranging practical applications. Clearly relatively few people are professional writers, but a huge amount of what goes on at the higher levels of a typical business is a steady stream of production and consumption of reports and memos. If you can compose an email that’s 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you’re going to get ahead in a wide range of fields. Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who’s pretty good at his job and a person who’s able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans. Everyone knows that a kid growing up in rural India is obtaining valuable skills if he gets better at English, but this is equally true for a kid growing up in Indiana.
Now of course perhaps not every liberal arts program is in fact imparting reading and writing skills to its graduates. But that’s a problem of execution not of concept. It’s a fallacy to think that in an increasingly technology-performed society that technical skills will be the only sources of value. Computers are going to put accountants out of business long before they start hurting the earnings of talented interior decorators. The important point is that mastering a specific body of facts is not nearly as useful in 2012 as it was in 1962.
These policy recommendations would do well for implementation down the road. At this point in our economic treading, companies hiring are more generally looking for specific qualifications; in my limited experience looking at job postings, a myriad of technical qualifications and prior experience in the field are precursors to even being looked at. And dozens of others will meet the checklist.
Recently there have been a lot of mentions of how certain jobs will be made obsolete by automation; like accounting and even informative journalism through algorithmic data instruments, etc. Technical skills will be useful in fields like Computer Science still, but most likely many more unforeseen jobs will be taken over by machines. Both Frank’s and Yglesias’ advice would yield definite benefits to regard for future policy. STEM and liberal arts undergraduate degrees equip students with quite a broad background in their field of study; it is unlikely, especially in today’s job market that you will find job specifically tailored to the knowledge you gained through your undergraduate studies. But those degrees do provide a more general competence, a mark proving you could get through 120 credits of college study. For liberal arts degrees, as Yglesias suggests, critical analysis and writing are often areas which firms can gain and judge productivity through real value added. This seems quite right. When working at a new company, if you need job training, these strengths will hasten the adoption of new processes. The future job market will most likely be full of shifting sands, and adaptation will be the key to productive growth. I especially like the point Yglesias makes about learning the English language and think it should also be extended to encompass all other large global languages; Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, etc. English is already greatly valued for foreign businesses, and the value of specific languages may spread out as the global economy coalesces even more.
Frank’s suggestion that future generations must toughen up and buckle down is stark contrast to today’s quick certification programs and commercials promising a paralegal or criminal justice degree in little time at all. He hits a nerve that humans should thrive for greater fulfillment rather than just to be able to apply for a cookie cutter job. For him I would think the pursuit of scientific knowledge should be more like science of the past when scientists would explore a divergent range of topics. I am not too sure that type of reversion can be possible, Frank may be romanticizing that past a little bit. The trend is definitely towards more specialization, so proffering up a grand notion of reaching the Truth in pursuit of scientific knowledge through diligent work just might not jibe with the future.
Yglesias last bit about liberal arts education being a problem of execution should resolve itself over time it the right policy corrections are made. Big public universities with full coffers for funding liberal arts studies and, well hopefully, dedicated professors and TAs, should streamline those fields for practical application. That is not to say undergraduates should not be able to pursue Russian Literature in Translation if they wanted to. Those classes should still be offered. But maybe our education system should try to instill those types of diverse and esoteric interests from a much earlier age. In this way, it may be possible to co-opt both Frank’s and Yglesias’ points. That way by the time students get to college, they can focus on undergraduate work to add value to society and be able to hold those interests from their childhood. Meanwhile, certain liberal arts programs in smaller universities and community colleges may be eliminated precisely because of the problem of execution. It comes down to the reality that, ceteris paribus, graduating with an English degree from Northwestern will give you better job prospects than an English degree from your local CC.