If the liberal arts are so useless, why care where the graduates go?

Over at the Washington Monthly, Ezra Klein has a piece on the tendency of Ivy League liberal arts grads to go to Wall Street rather than into public service or other businesses.  Klein argues that the tendency of elite liberal arts grads to go into finance, law or consulting is because those application processes are so comfortable for someone who’s always excelled in school and in writing applications.  You fill out your paperwork, do your interviews, and then the employers say yea or nay – no complicated self-analysis required (outside the top tier of schools, that simplicity – the fancy academic word is “legibility” – explains a lot of why top students with no clear career plans go to graduate school).

Klein uses this observation – Ivy League liberal arts grads don’t know what to do with their lives – to draw an additional conclusion: that a liberal arts education doesn’t actually confer anything useful.  As he puts it, in the liberal arts “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.”  For the students who follow that advice, “Wall Street is promising to give graduates the skills their university education didn’t.”  Conclusion: their liberal arts educations have failed them.

The problem is that you can’t presume that the self-perceptions of undergraduates who have spent their entire lives in a structured feedback-heavy environment is an accurate evaluation of their skills.  Just because someone who majored in medieval history isn’t sure what do do with their life and is afraid that not landing a prestigious job straight out of undergrad will look like failure, that doesn’t mean that they lack any usable skills – or that their education didn’t provide them.

The proof is in where Klein started, with the financial and consulting firms who are snapping up these graduates.  Presumably Klein would agree that they have to have some reason for wanting them, and it probably has something to do with their skills. (I’m ignoring two alternatives, because if either is true then we have far bigger problems than whether an Ivy League education teaches you anything: a) those businesses think the personal and familial connections are worth hiring an Ivy League grad despite their lack of any usable skills, or b) what those businesses really want is the raw potential that a potential Ivy League attendee had at 18, and it’s worth paying the premium for Ivy graduates rather than hiring and warehousing them for four years or trying to find the same profile elsewhere).

In other words, either an Ivy League liberal arts education has value, or Wall Street firms are morons.  Yes, the hiring firms are taking advantage of the insecurity and separation anxiety of the new grads, but all that proves is that twenty-one year-olds, even those that graduate from the Ivy League, aren’t sure what they want to do with their lives.

The whole “ivory tower educations are leaving our children unprepared for life” is a cottage industry these days, even when the data it thrives on suggests exactly the opposite.  Take, for example, the spate of opinion pieces that came out after the release of Academically Adrift said the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) showed that students weren’t improving much through undergrad.

Many of the writers who seized on the CLA data went on to suggest that ivory tower teachers were failing leaving their students, but they ignored what the AA report actually showed about the connection between majors and student outcomes.  The highest CLA scores (you can see them in this report, on p.11) came from math/science and social science/humanities, with engineering and computer science a distant third and the “more practical” business, education and communications fields last.

Again, there’s a contradiction.  If you think that the lack of improvement on the CLA shows an educational failure, then you have to admit that it’s the liberal arts that are doing the best at educating students.  If you think that the real problem is that not enough students graduate with marketable skills (usually associated with those last four fields), then you can hardly consider the CLA a useful test of anything – after all, the “best” positioned students were the ones who scored the worst.  You can’t have it both ways.

There’s room for improvement in how the liberal arts are taught and in how their students are encouraged to perceive their skills (though, if what I saw at Yale University is any guide, the Ivies are far ahead of other schools on that front), but none of that adds up to evidence that liberal arts educations are failing their students.

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