By James Kwak
In the Washington Post, Harvard Medical School professor David Silbersweig argues for the continuing value of a liberal arts education in today’s world. The “liberal arts”—usually meaning anything other than math, science, engineering, and maybe business—do seem to be under attack from all quarters, and not only from know-nothings like Marco Rubio. Just this week, the president of Queen’s University in Belfast said this (explaining why students will no longer be able to concentrate in sociology or anthropology):
Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward.
That’s the new conventional wisdom: we need “leaders” who can “help society drive forward,” whatever that means.
Silbersweig himself majored in philosophy before becoming a doctor and a medical researcher. He makes a number of points, but this is the one you usually see in articles like this:
If you can get through a one-sentence paragraph of Kant, holding all of its ideas and clauses in juxtaposition in your mind, you can think through most anything. If you can extract, and abstract, underlying assumptions or superordinate principles, or reason through to the implications of arguments, you can identify and address issues in a myriad of fields.
I certainly agree. And I also agree that society needs people with a broad range of intellectual perspectives. This is the kind of thing you would expect me to agree with. I majored in social studies and got a Ph.D. in French intellectual history, of all things (and one of my fields for my orals was philosophy). But there’s an important caveat, which I’ll get to.
Unlike, say, learning Java, it isn’t easy to specify exactly what you learn in the humanities that turns out to be useful later. You do a lot of reading and writing, but of course those are things you knew how to do before going to college. You may learn how to check out boxes of documents at the archives, but that turns out not to be so useful unless you stay in academic research.
One thing I think I learned was dealing with ambiguity. In fields like social studies and history, you rarely find explanations of the world that are unequivocally correct. You don’t even have the pretense, which many economists labor under, that there is an unequivocally correct explanation out there, and you are just trying to find it. As a result, one thing I became pretty good at was using words fill to gaps—manufacturing connections and relationships between different phenomena. This, it turns out, is a very useful skill in the business world where, to tell an old consulting joke, two data points are a trend and three data points are proof. The ability to come up with a story that is convincing—and that very well may be true—based on limited information can be worth a lot in the business world.
Another thing that you can develop in the humanities is the ability to convince people. Unlike math or physics, often there is no definitive way to prove anything, so powers of argument matter. As I’ve often told students and advice-seekers, the single most important skill in business is the ability to pick up the phone, call someone (no, email doesn’t work) who doesn’t owe you anything, and convince her to do something for you. The most convincing person I’ve ever met is also the most effective businessperson I’ve ever known, and he has a B.A. and D.Phil. in philosophy.
And, of course, you learn a lot more about the real world—meaning how people behave, both individually and in groups—in the humanities and social sciences than you do in most scientific fields. So, for example, you might realize that human beings are prone to herd behavior when it comes to, say, investing in real estate, and that bubbles are prone to collapse in messy ways.
The caveat, though, is this: David Silbersweig went to Dartmouth and Cornell Medical School. I went to Harvard and UC-Berkeley (and, much later, the Yale Law School). If you go to a school like that, there are prestigious companies that will take a chance on you even if you majored in classics or medieval history. Even so, there aren’t that many: three consulting firms, a handful of investment banks, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and probably not that many others. Or you can get fancy summer internships even as you spend your semesters reading Sartre and Heidegger, or whatever people read today. Or, as they say, you can always go to law school.
The problem is that while we need lots and lots of people with humanities and social science backgrounds, in today’s increasingly anti-intellectual climate, majoring in philosophy is becoming a risk that fewer and fewer people can afford to take. It’s also becoming an option that fewer and fewer people have to begin with, as schools from Queen’s University to CUNY make it harder and harder to study in fields that can’t attract their own corporate donors. This is what happens when you have a poor job market for new graduates, a social safety net in tatters, crumbling financial support for public higher education, an arms race in corporate fundraising by elite private schools, and a general takeover of the intellectual culture by corporate CEOs. Studying French literature will become one more luxury good reserved for the elite.