YOU CAN DO ANYTHING
The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education
By George Anders
342 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $27.
A PRACTICAL EDUCATION
Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees
By Randall Stross
291 pp. Redwood Press. $25.
Surely one day the ability to interface directly with the nanomachinery connected to our brains will render computer science as we know it obsolete. When experts start arguing for its continued relevance, undergraduates choosing a major will begin to realize that the obscure art of manually punching arcane symbols into keyboards is no longer a safe bet. At the present moment, however, it is only liberal arts majors who have to wonder whether all of the articles and books promoting the marketability of their chosen discipline should make them more or less uneasy about the future. Two additions to this growing field have appeared just in time to try to soothe the post-graduation panic that some within the class of 2017 may be experiencing: George Anders’s “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education” and Randall Stross’s “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees.”
According to both Anders and Stross, the ever-expanding tech sector is now producing career opportunities in fields — project management, recruitment, human relations, branding, data analysis, market research, design, fund-raising and sourcing, to name some — that specifically require the skills taught in the humanities. To thrive in these areas, one must be able to communicate effectively, read subtle social and emotional cues, make persuasive arguments, adapt quickly to fluid environments, interpret new forms of information while translating them into a compelling narrative and anticipate obstacles and opportunities before they arise. Programs like English or history represent better preparation, the two authors argue, for the demands of the newly emerging “rapport sector” than vocationally oriented disciplines like engineering or finance. Though it does not automatically land one in a particular career, training in the humanities, when pitched correctly, will ultimately lead to gainful and fulfilling employment. Indeed, by the time they reach what Stross terms the “peak earning ages,” 56-60, liberal arts majors earn on average $2,000 more per year than those with pre-professional degrees (if advanced degrees in both categories are included).
While “You Can Do Anything” and “A Practical Education” supply useful talking points in support of the financial viability of studying the liberal arts, they may arouse more fear than hope. Both feature myriad anecdotes of job searches, all with happy endings, but the journey there invariably proves daunting, circuitous and chancy. Moreover, the reality that apparently favors liberal arts majors is precisely what makes the current job market so forbidding: extreme precariousness. Trained to be flexible and adaptable, these students are well equipped, according to Anders, to navigate an unstable job market, where companies, fields and sometimes whole industries rise and fall at a nauseating clip, where automation is rendering once coveted skills redundant and where provisional short-term jobs, freelance assignments, part-time gigs, unpaid internships and self-employment are replacing long-term, full-time salaried positions that include rights and benefits protected by unions. While Anders, a contributing writer at Forbes magazine, clearly wants the best for recent liberal arts graduates, his pep talk often consists of rebranding the treacherous market conditions of the 21st century as part of a thrilling new frontier. Instability can promote “quirky-job-hopping” and greater “autonomy.” Recent liberal arts graduates who find these conditions less than inviting, Anders says, simply need to discover the proper spirit of adventure — the same spirit that led them to their chosen field of study. But somehow it seems unlikely that his analogy to white-water rafting will get them excited to send out yet another batch of cover letters and résumés.
The two books also raise hard questions about who exactly can turn a liberal arts degree into a successful career. In almost all of the stories, job candidates must survive a significant lag time before finding a position that pays the bills, during which they are often forced to pursue additional training or accept poorly compensated work while relying on financial support from their parents. Moreover, in just about every case, they end up tapping into an extensive network of family and friends. Ominously, Stross, a professor of business at San Jose State University, chooses to restrict his study to Stanford graduates in order to ensure that he has a sufficient number of success stories. And even these individuals end up struggling along the way. How much harder must it be for those with fewer connections and with B.A.s from less prestigious schools? No wonder first-generation, working-class and foreign students are so often drawn to technology and business majors, which appear to provide a more direct line between credentials earned and career opportunities secured. When Anders observes that Etsy wants employees who can “banter about Jenny Holzer’s conceptual artwork and turn theory into praxis,” this sounds like code for people who can speak the language of privilege. It is possible, of course, for a B.A. in the liberal arts to help working-class students acquire the cultural fluency that generally develops out of being raised amid the affluent and the highly educated, but it also seems likely that an elite background, not a degree in theater or art history, is the most reliable gateway into the career fields Anders is plugging. Anders does cite a 2015 study indicating that students with liberal arts degrees from lower-ranked schools entered the tech sector at only a slightly reduced rate compared with students from highly ranked schools (7.5 percent to 9.9 percent). But his summary does not indicate exactly what jobs these different types of students got or what they were paid, and Anders himself admits that extra career guidance may be necessary to help students at second-tier universities make their liberal arts education work for them in the way he thinks it should.
Advocates of the liberal arts will maintain that the intellectual experiences fostered in these disciplines ought to be available to everyone. If the trust-fund kids don’t have to weigh the practicality of studying feminist philosophy when registering for classes, why should the scholarship students? Moreover many academics dismiss the now widespread tendency to assess fields of study in terms of their marketability, viewing it as a sign of the American university’s capitulation to a corporatist, neoliberal ideology. The goal of the liberal arts, they would say, is to impart knowledge, promote the capacity for serious intellectual inquiry and encourage critical perspectives on prevailing norms and assumptions, whether or not such training attracts prospective employers. But then what professors don’t want their students to get good jobs after college, particularly those saddled with debts accrued to pay their tuition? Indeed, in the face of what looks like permanent budget austerity within higher education, the future of many humanities disciplines probably depends on their perceived ability to open doors to professional opportunities. Thus true believers in liberal arts degrees may find themselves rejecting the criteria that Anders and Stross use to assert their value and viability while secretly, desperately hoping that the two authors’ prognosis is correct.
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