Liberal Arts Education Is Not (Necessarily) a Waste of Time

Harvard history professor Jill LePore tells this story. She was hosting an event in her home for new students, promoting the university’s history and literature program. One of the students there was suddenly distracted by urgent text messages from her parents telling her, “Leave right now, get out of there, that is a house of pain.”

LePore’s tale exemplifies the attitude that many Americans now have with regard to liberal arts education—it’s a waste of time; a “house of pain.” Studying history, literature, philosophy or anything else that doesn’t have a clear occupational path is just throwing away years of school time and a great deal of money. Focus instead on practical subjects that might at least lead to a job after college.

One person who doesn’t agree that a liberal arts education is a waste of time is Randall Stross. Stross majored in Chinese history, went on work in Silicon Valley, wrote a column for the New York Times (“Digital Domain”), has written several books including The Launch Pad, and is currently a professor of business at San Jose State University.

His latest book is entitled A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees. As he sees things, the big problem is that while top business executives say they prize the abilities that liberal arts majors have, their subordinates don’t.

Interviewed by Inside Higher Ed about his book, Stross said, “Chief executives tend to advocate for hiring graduates with the analytical and communication skills that a liberal education sharpens, but the managers or teams who make the actual hiring decisions have in recent years sought instead something else, what they call the ability of a new hire ‘to hit the ground running.’” They doubt that a student can do that without a STEM major or a career-oriented degree.

The purpose of A Practical Education is, Stross says, to “nudge” the business world back toward considering what liberal arts majors can do. He goes about that by presenting case studies of a number of recent Stanford graduates who managed to find good employment in tech companies despite having studied the liberal arts. Those cases are illuminating, and not just because they pertain to elite university liberal arts majors. They also tell us a lot about the post-college job search that most American grads face.

Consider Meredith Hazy, who majored in English. She loved literature and her courses, giving little thought at all to what she’d do after graduation. When that day inevitably came, she decided to try finding employment at one of the many tech firms in the Palo Alto area, even though she knew almost nothing about computers. Twitter was a company she had heard about, so she applied for an advertised opening for an “account manager,” although she had little idea what that job would entail.

In her interview, the recruiter asked, “How would you convince people to use Twitter ads?” She pictured this exercise “as a form of improvisational theater” and did well enough to earn a second interview. Incidentally, she was not asked anything about her major or coursework.

For her second interview, she was given the task of preparing a paper on “the digital ad space.” Meredith knew nothing about that either, but set about writing the paper just like she would have if she’d been given a paper assignment on an unfamiliar writer. “The ability to learn quickly what you needed to know,” she said, “was the only real prerequisite.” She got the job with Twitter.

After working for Twitter for a year, she grew restless and started looking again. She came across a new firm named Stripe, which had been founded just a year before by two brothers who had dropped out of college. Stripe needed a risk analyst, which meant identifying and predicting fraudulent purchases.  Meredith had never done anything like that, but persuaded the interviewer that she had the necessary drive and brainpower. She got that job, too.

Stross acknowledges a crucial point, namely that “her Stanford pedigree and the school’s reputation for selectivity confers a competitive advantage to its job-seeking graduates over those who went to less selective schools.” If Meredith had majored in English at, say, San Jose State, she might never have been granted an interview at either firm. I’ll come back to that point later.

Another Stanford grad Stross profiles is Stephen Hayes, a 2010 history major. Like Meredith Hazy, he was not sure what to do after graduation, and during his senior year decided to apply for Teach for America.  After a year of teaching 7th graders, he was ready for something else. He applied at Google even though he didn’t have a tech background.

In his Google interview, his Stanford coursework never came up, but his TFA experience did. He was offered a six-month job working in Google’s People Operation Group on a team charged with coming up with better questions for interviewers to ask job applicants.

After completing his time at Google, Hayes went job-hunting again and clicked with a company called Inkling, which makes software for interactive textbooks. His work required him to read and compare original book versions of material with the digital versions Inkling had prepared and note any discrepancies. Essentially, the job called for good proofreading skills.

All this time, incidentally, he was deferring his admission to Stanford’s law school. To keep him from going, his boss at Inkling made him such a good offer that Hayes told the law school that he wouldn’t be enrolling.

After two years at Inkling, Hayes and his girlfriend (who also worked there) decided to take a four-month trip around the world and look for new jobs when they returned. Stephen got an interview with Lyft. The interviewer told him to prepare a case study on how to launch Lyft into a new market—Las Vegas. Hayes knew little about this business, but that did not daunt him. Stross explains, “This exercise entailed quickly acquiring essential information about unfamiliar topics, distilling, rearranging and adding his own insights, then presenting the result. It was not dissimilar from the process of preparing a history paper.”

Liberal arts grads at many other colleges don’t have the innate ability of Stanford students to begin with, then they coast along to their degrees, taking a lot of undemanding courses.

He landed the job.

The stories Stross tells about Stanford grads who ventured out into the world with only their liberal arts degrees are inspiring. The question is whether they will lead more employers to give liberal arts grads serious consideration, rather than filtering them out because they don’t look like employees who are ready to “hit the ground running.”

I suspect that it won’t, due to a problem that Stross dimly perceives—Stanford’s reputation for only admitting really sharp students. Stanford’s “brand” opens up doors that would be closed to graduates of less selective institutions. Many employers want and need workers who have the drive, mental acuteness, and communication skills that Stanford grads like Meredith and Stephen have, but they know that the graduates of many other schools aren’t comparable to them.

Liberal arts grads at many other colleges don’t have the innate ability of Stanford students to begin with, then they coast along to their degrees, taking a lot of undemanding courses. They never develop much of the “soft skills” that Stross extols. He looked at the cream of the liberal arts crop; most other students would be of doubtful value to an employer.

Although Stanford’s “brand” is still good, the “liberal arts” brand in general has been badly harmed by the erosion of academic standards and the diffusion of the curriculum. That is why so many students and their parents are drawn toward the “hard” majors. It requires a lot of discipline to earn a STEM degree. There are right and wrong answers. Professors don’t let students fake understanding of the material. Those degrees demonstrate knowledge and ambition.

College is largely about signaling your trainability. STEM and serious occupational degrees signal that the individual can meet challenges, while liberal arts degrees—sadly—only signal that the student has accumulated enough credits of some sort to graduate. They might have been tough credits that honed the student’s mind, but most business recruiters are rightly skeptical.

Yes, the liberal arts can be a practical education, but at too many schools there isn’t much education going on in their programs. Despite Stross’s fine book, liberal arts degrees will probably continue to be disfavored.

  • JWJ

    “…number of recent Stanford graduates who managed to find good employment in tech companies despite having studied the liberal arts.”

    As you allude to, not a very representative sample group. Wouldn’t it have been more relevant (and intellectually honest) for Mr. Stross to look at recent liberal arts graduates of Humboldt State, UNC Charlotte, Colorado State University Pueblo, SUNY Adirondack?
    In his book, does Mr. Stross make the distinction between the mostly top 5% who get into Stanford and the rest of us that most likely went to a school such as Western Michigan (acceptance rate 82%)

    Why not make the suggestion to minor in a particular area in the liberal arts?

    • Qut RiskManagement

      I studies exact sciences, we were merely required to memorize knowledge. There was little higher order thinking required, even writing of research articles was standardised. When i moved to humanities, truth appeared not so easy to uncover. I needed to develop higher order thinking to create beliefs and persuade others it had some merit. Investment bankers need creative and critical thinkers to make sense out of chaos which is human behaviour. I agree with you that liberal arts has changed for the worse. A lot if it is now simply “monkey see monkey do” mentality. This also happens at “elite” universities, the incentives for academics are no longer in the teaching and the spillover effect of publications on students has diminished substantially.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    One of my students was barely literate (I once told him he should complain about his education, only to find out that his father was principal), but his ambition was off the scale. He ended up hitchhiking a ride with the Tea Party locals, ended up as a congressional staff chief. I assume he hired people from Stanford to write his letter for him. Lesson: It is who you know, not what you know.

  • therealguyfaux ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    All right, HERE’s a radical proposal:

    How about we abolish majoring in all liberal arts, but require lots of distribution courses in them? Sure, you’ll get [Subject] For Dummies 101 courses that MAY seem to be a waste of time, but what it is, is that all students will become acquainted with the idea of “There really ARE some things that ‘everyone knows,’ that go beyond strict ‘glorified vo-tech courses.” At a minimum, students would be faced with the realization that “Not only are there things you didn’t know, you did not even know that you did not know them.” This MAY unsettle some “special snowflake” types who think college is there to confirm biases and offer a “safe space,” but too bad.

    But how will we assemble a professoriat who can teach those courses, if we don’t have majors in those subjects? Maybe through some entrance exams for a redesigned Master’s/Doctorate program in those subjects, Following the logic of the article, the really bright kids need not have delved into things THAT thoroughly in undergrad school if they show they MIGHT have the aptitude to do so later.

  • gts109

    From George’s blurb on the Corner: Liberal arts degrees from middling schools “probably signal[] that [the graduate] didn’t want to work hard enough to get through a demanding program.”

    George, I notice that you graduated from Carroll College (what and where is that?) with a B.A. Were you a liberal arts major because you were lazy and dumb? Just wondering.

    • DrOfnothing

      Carroll College is in Montana. It’s an amazing place, and one that has a reputation for fostering intellectual curiosity as well as a social conscience among its students. Of course, there are exceptions to every trend . . .

  • Mike

    Most of the examples in the article of liberal arts majors drifting into tech were from students at Stanford, which is hardly representative. It’s a lot easier to drift into the tech world when you live in the heart of it. An English major from Iowa State has a lot lower chance of running into a VP of Growth Hacking in a coffee shop than does one who literally lives in view of the office of Palantir, Wealthfront, and watches the Facebook, Google, and Netflix buses that pick up at Palo Alto Caltrain station every day.

  • DrOfnothing

    It’s a real shame that an otherwise commendable argument, “Liberal Arts is still a valid major,” is ruined by ideological hogwash that is insupportable by empirical evidence.

    Let’s look at another fine product from the nonsense factory:

    1.) “Liberal arts grads at many other colleges don’t have the innate ability of Stanford students to begin with, then they coast along to their degrees, taking a lot of undemanding courses. They never develop much of the “soft skills” that Stross extols.”
    **This is completely false. Liberal Arts majors often have some of the toughest grading standards and the lowest GPAs. History and Philosophy, in particular, are known across the HE sector for having average grades that, at many schools, match those given in Chemistry and Physics. Two of the lowest GPAs across the system are not STEM subjects in any case, but Social Sciences–Economics and Psychology.

    2.) “the “liberal arts” brand in general has been badly harmed by the erosion of academic standards and the diffusion of the curriculum. That is why so many students and their parents are drawn toward the “hard” majors. It requires a lot of discipline to earn a STEM degree. There are right and wrong answers. Professors don’t let students fake understanding of the material. Those degrees demonstrate knowledge and ambition.”
    **If not patently false, then at least a gross and inaccurate generalisation. Many STEM students intentionally steer away from History, English, and Philosophy because they find writing and critical analysis too challenging. Ask any professor in these fields their primary complaint about STEM students and, without exception, it will be “they can’t write.” Given that most undergraduates _do not_ go on to jobs in their majors, one could make a strong argument that written and verbal communication, as provided by a Liberal Arts degree, is both a more challenging skill and, as the author himself maintains, a more useful one.

    As a related point, it’s worth noting that STEM graduates far exceed STEM jobs in every single instance except for Computer Science. Anyone who thinks that a STEM degree is a sure path to employment has not done their homework, literally.

    One could make the larger argument about how soulless a society we would become if we continue to denigrate and disparage the Liberal Arts simply because they do not lead immediately to a lucrative career. Perhaps we should think a bit more about _why_ we learn rather than _what_ we study. The Paradise Papers scandal should have taught us that, if nothing else. As Oscar Wilde said, “a man can be forgiven for making something useful only as long as he does not admire it.”

  • Qut RiskManagement

    On the contrary, big investment bankers now seek out liberal arts students for their higher order thinking skills. Computers can now do all those mindless computations.

    • J K Brown

      And how many liberal arts students from 2nd tier colleges do they hire.

      Yes, we understand, if you graduate from an “elite” college, you’ll likely find a job. If you avoid the SJW majors.

      On the other hand, at any college of engineering, or hard science, that requires the right answer, students will learn higher order thinking skills just to survive. Whereas, in many less Liberal Arts departments now debased, the student simply has to regurgitate that Shakespeare was gay and running dog of capitalism.

      • Qut RiskManagement

        I came from exact sciences and found that most time was spent memorizing knowledge. When i moved to liberal arts, the requirements were very different, partly to do with the fact that there is far more uncertainty in knowledge. Hence, i was required to form beliefs (subjective opinions) and convince others there was some merit in it. These skills are highly regarded by investment banks. I agree that “monkey see monkey do” mentality is ripe amongst students, a requirement if you want high grades. The incentives for academics to do good teaching has changed so much, publish or perish is the new slogan. There is no longer the strong link between research and teaching. Universities VCs now mostly are money managers, with few having any research background. The internet is now the forum for real learning and tge university is fast becoming irrelevant.

  • Steve The Loser

    STAY OUT OF LAW SCHOOL!

    It was the worst decision of my entire life. Pointless debt, a hopelessly glutted job market, and a degree with virtually no transferable value.

  • redweather

    “Liberal arts grads at many other colleges don’t have the innate ability of Stanford students to begin with, then they coast along to their degrees, taking a lot of undemanding courses. They never develop much of the “soft skills” that Stross extols. He looked at the cream of the liberal arts crop; most other students would be of doubtful value to an employer.”

    That’s painting with a very broad brush. Kinda like saying that computer science grads are total nerds with poor communication and social skills.

    • bdavi52

      Exactly.

      Mr. Leef, unfortunately recreates the same error made by Stross: slides into the exact same logic rut, the exact same Stanford Swoon.

      The truth is the “innate ability” of Stanford students is displayed by countless students in countless schools. Despite the mythos, there is nothing particularly magic about Stanford or their students. There is only high demand for limited positions which allows infinite exclusivity. By any measure we can find equally bright, ‘innately abled’ students all across the country.

      The challenge is not opening employers limited vision to see Stanford Graduates as bright and qualified, rather it is opening their vision to see & recognize bright & qualified graduates, regardless of the color of the sweatshirt.

  • bdavi52

    There are two fundamental problems here, both overlooked.

    1) Liberal Arts grads self-select out. They’ve been raised (from birth to graduation) with School as their only ‘Real Life’ model. And they’ve been good at it (thus the degree in some more or less abstruse subject). And when they consider The Future (post-Graduation) they conceive only of Doctor, Lawyer, Mad Man Advertising, or Teaching (the traditional, straight-line extensions of undergrad degrees in History or English). That’s it (with some few peripheral exceptions). They are oblivious to the tens of thousands of jobs in Business (having seen & experienced none of them save for that summer working retail) and they think of Business as being ‘beneath them’ (definitely not the equivalent of Doctor, Lawyer, Teacher, or Don Draper). And so they wander into ‘something else’ until or unless something random happens which puts them in that world.

    2) Business Managers hiring entry-level positions most typically are not liberal arts grads. They, too, tend to think in linear patterns: if I have an opening for an Inventory Controller I need someone with experience in Inventory or ‘controlling’…or, at a minimum, in business. They therefore do not ‘see’ a graduate with a degree in 19th Century British Literature as being in any way qualified for Inventory Controlling (despite the fact that they are).

    This then, in combination, creates a double-bind: liberal arts grads typically avoid applying for entry-level business positions …and business hiring managers (for entry level) typically turn away from the few liberal arts grads they do see (associating them only with a limited number of positions in HR, PR, or maybe Marketing….all ‘soft’ business disciplines). Ultimately, if we’re not careful, we find ourselves in a kind of ‘double death spiral’….like begetting like, ad infinitum. Both sides of the question unable to see the Other, which means neither side pursues the Other…which means they become that much more unlikely to see, which means they become that much more unlikely to pursue. And everything becomes increasingly stagnant.

    Sadly, Stross’s book on Stanford Grads will do nothing to resolve this dilemma, emphasizing (or so this review indicates) pretty much exclusively both the STANFORD part of being a liberal arts undergrad and the Silicon Valley part of business success. The lesson evidently being conveyed is not “Hire LArts Undergrads in Business” but rather, “Hire Stanford Grads in Silicon Valley”….and that is an entirely different story.