Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wall Street and the Liberal Arts: What's Not Wrong with Higher Education


Why do so many college graduates continue to seek jobs on Wall Street in the wake of a financial collapse caused largely by the Street’s own predatory financial practices? Why aren’t students, especially given the galvanizing effect of the Occupy movement, shunning the financial sector in order to seek work in fields that support sectors of the economy ravaged by these practices? Shouldn’t liberal arts students be leaving colleges and universities with the kind of idealism that would direct them into education, public service, or other positions with not-for-profit corporations, or in positions that serve their communities? With evidence suggesting many students continue to flock in significant numbers to jobs in the financial sector from ivy league schools like Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, a lot of people are wondering who to blame.

According to an article in the February 16th edition of the Washington Monthly, the blame lies with the liberal arts. That’s right, the liberal arts. Ezra Klein, in Harvard’s Liberal-Arts Failure Is Wall Street’s Gain,”  claims that the liberal arts lure students into taking courses that have no market value, and that once they wake up and realize what they’ve done, it’s too late. They’ve become sitting ducks for recruiters from Goldman Sachs. He imagines a kind of shell game in which Wall Street is actually “taking advantage of the weakness of liberal arts education.” Here’s the logic:

For many kids, college represents an end goal. Once you get into a good college, you’ve made it, and everyone stops worrying about you. You’re encouraged to take classes in subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills. After a few years of study, you suddenly find it’s late in your junior year, or early in your senior year, and you have no skills pointing to the obvious next step.

In Klein’s view, “Wall Street is promising to give graduates the skills their university education didn’t.” Studying the liberal arts turns out to be a luxury students literally cannot afford. Worse still, because the liberal arts fail to teach students marketable skills, these students are more than happy to pick them up, with pay, from Wall Street.

This is a bone-headed argument for a number of reasons. First of all, the statistics Klein is working with do not break down students who take jobs on Wall Street by major. There’s no evidence that history, philosophy, sociology, or English majors are taking jobs on Wall Street because these majors have failed to provide them marketable skills. And what about those students who did major in business or accounting but took a few general education courses in the liberal arts? Are we to believe that a smattering of courses on Romantic poetry, the history of the Cold War, and existentialism left them so ill-equipped for a job that they became vulnerable to the seductions of Morgan Stanley? Would these students really be better equipped for the job market if they had just skipped liberal arts courses altogether?

Of course they wouldn’t. Indeed, there’s good reason to argue they’d be less equipped without liberal arts courses, for, as Gerald Graff and I pointed out last month in “Fear of Being Useful,” there’s plenty of evidence that study in the liberal arts and humanities does in fact equip students with a range of practical skills attractive to employers in both for profit and not-for profit workplaces. Klein is simply wrong in suggesting liberal arts students are taking jobs on Wall Street because they are not learning marketable skills in their liberal arts courses. They are learning those skills. So, if we want to understand why the finance sector is attracting so many recent graduates, we’ll need to look elsewhere for an answer. Blaming the liberal arts is the last thing commentators ought to be doing.

The irony in Klein’s argument is that he uses the same market-driven values he criticizes to measure the value of courses in English literature, history, and political science. In his view, if such courses don’t provide students with the kind of focused, technical expertise that translates into a job, then they aren’t worth anything at all. According to Klein, we might as well just get rid of them, and turn colleges and universities into credentialing agencies for high-paying jobs in the private sector. Klein has somehow missed the fact that a liberal arts education is as much about values as it is about value. The values liberal arts students learn are worth more than the value of the degree they will earn.

If students in the liberal arts aren’t finding their way into fulfilling, well paying jobs outside of finance, the problem is not with liberal arts content but rather with a lack of innovative, up-to-date career counseling and placement services for liberal arts and humanities students. We need to do more to support our students, and to direct them early on in their college careers toward the kinds of jobs their skills can prepare them for. The last thing we need to do is to follow Klein’s advice and direct them away from liberal arts courses. For these courses not only teach them a range of critical thinking, analytical, and communicative skills broadly transferable to a variety of professions. They also help our students develop an ethical perspective -- and a commitment to social justice -- that Wall Street, and the corporate world beyond it, sorely need. [This post represents the opinion of Paul Jay and should only be attributed to him]

UPDATE: I recommend a wonderful article about Klein's piece by Tess Amodeo-Vickery called "Dear Ezra: Wall Street Was No Match for a Liberal Arts Degree." Amadeo-Vickery challenges Klein's view with her own story. She credits her liberal arts degree from Wesleyan with getting her a job on Wall Street, a job she later left when she realized that "cutthroat" world wasn't for her. She's now an editor, and a professional jazz singer, in Rome. About her liberal arts education she writes: "I value myself and my ability, and I was taught I am capable of doing anything—qualities nurtured through a well-rounded education, not a cutthroat finance job." It's an inspiring piece.

2 comments:

  1. Another irony is that Klein's argument so obviously refutes itself. If liberal-arts majors really had no marketable skills, why would financial firms be recruiting them in the first place? Surely the firms know what they're getting when they hire these students.

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  2. Right you are, David, a self-refutation hiding in plain sight like the purloined letter. Klein makes a big deal about how Wall Street firms are happy to train these students, as if they have no skills that make them attractive job candidates in the first place. Good point.

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