Big hat tip to Adam for sending me a link to this Ezra Klein column from a couple of days ago, in which I think Klein gets everything wrong.
Why do so many Ivy League kids go to Wall Street? There are some pretty obvious explanations – money, social status, money, social expectations, money, fierce recruiting, money – that Klein dismisses as insufficient. He thinks that there are at least two other explanations.
The first is that applying to Wall Street firms is like applying to college – something that the generic “Harvard grad” is already good at. He gets one Harvard senior to back this up, affirming that, yes, it’s much easier to go through a formal application process than to look for a career on your own, so recently minted Ivy League graduates usually take that path of least resistance.
That is as dim a view of Ivy Leaguers as I have read, and I read Gawker pretty regularly. According to Klein and his source, after four years of top-notch education these graduates do what is easiest and most structured because searching for work on Craigslist (or maybe even offline) is too undefined and confusing. In other words, the best-of-the-best of American higher education can’t navigate any of the many informal systems for finding jobs that millions of other Americans somehow manage to muddle through. I guess I’m willing to give Harvard grads a little more credit than Klein does.
Klein’s second explanation is the more important one. He thinks that highly educated graduates head to Wall Street because Wall Street gigs provide “the skills their university education didn’t.” Wall Street is providing what the universities are failing to provide; higher education is dropping the ball, and Wall Street is running with it. The title of Klein’s column, “Harvard’s Liberal-Arts Failure Is Wall Street’s Gain,” emphasizes this central point.
Once again, there is a single anecdote supporting the claim. More importantly though, there is no description – not even a vague one – of what these “skills” are. If Klein means that universities don’t train students in how to structure derivatives or package securities, then yes, the universities are failing. If Klein means that Ivy League students don’t learn the basic protocols of the corporate world, or the long-term expectations of a Fortune 500 company, then yes, the universities are letting students down. But of course none of this is what universities are supposed to be doing.
What are universities supposed to be doing? And more specifically – because we’re talking about the Ivies – what is the purpose of a liberal arts education? That’s the much bigger question, and the one that Klein has unwittingly weighed in on.
Lots and lots of people have offered their considered opinions on this question, because for years the liberal arts have been “in crisis.” For explanations or declarations or denials of that crisis, see here and here and here and here, or just read The Chronicle Of Higher Education. For a historical treatment of these issues, see here.
This is old news. Liberal arts, and specifically the humanities, have been in crisis for decades and maybe even a century (and they haven’t been around for much longer than that). But the current crisis may be the most acute, given the perfect storm of causes: an economic recession that puts a premium on practical knowledge, the slow but steady collapse of the tenure system, an anti-intellectual environment that governors and state legislatures have used to defund state universities, and – probably most importantly – this.
For-profit colleges and universities are an implicit critique of the liberal arts model. With their relentless focus on what is practical and their drive to increase their students’ earning potential above all things, they raise difficult questions about what exactly is the purpose of teaching anthropology, sociology, women’s studies, film studies, philosophy, English, or history. Although for-profit institutions have had, at best, limited success in their mission, they have had much greater success in recruiting students. And they have their own newspaper, and, apparently, presidential candidate.
I’m not trying to paint for-profit universities as a dark cloud on the horizon. While some – like Kaplan – are pretty sketchy outfits, others – like the University of Phoenix – are probably on the up-and-up. And while I am a staunch advocate of the liberal arts, I think the criticisms that for-profits raise are legitimate and important. Why do liberal arts students spend tens of thousands of dollars to learn things that, nine times out of ten, will have no direct bearing on their careers? Why do we think such things should be part of the core curriculum? Why don’t we just orient higher education toward very specific career tracks, as they tend to do in Europe?
It is a sign of just how much the for-profits and their advocates are winning this debate that the professors and administrators of liberal arts institutions increasingly use the language of economics to answer these questions. We hear that history majors make, on average, lots of dough (although we don’t hear that this is because so many of them go to law school); we hear about “value-added” curricula; we hear that critical thinking is exactly what employers are looking for; and we hear that speaking effectively and eruditely to one or one thousand will pay dividends in the corporate world.
I agree with Stanley Fish: this is exactly the wrong argument. Not only is it patently bogus, but it also opens the door to dismantling liberal arts curricula program by program as each fails to live up to its false economic promise. Justifying the liberal arts is hard. It may be impossible in a democratic society. But if it can be done it should be done on its own terms.
All of this is what Klein doesn’t seem to get. His column takes as a given that practical career preparation is one of the central goals of a liberal arts institution. That’s not a given. In fact, until recently the exact opposite was a given. This is an important debate, and not just for those of us in the academic world, so nothing should be a given at this point.