Senior Column: The Liberal Arts College Won’t Die Unless We Let It

Most people I know respond to the Claremont “bubble” in one of two ways: They
either devour their free New York Times every morning over a Frary smoothie, or
they use coursework as an excuse to stop following current events. (These
people wonder why nobody studies abroad in Syria anymore.)

A while
back, in an effort to thrust myself from the latter category into the former, I
subscribed to Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein’s daily “Wonkbook” e-mail. It’s a 21st century liberal arts student’s dream: a comprehensive and even-handed digest that collects bite-size, pithy policy explanations and occasional links to Jeff Mangum videos. (Seriously.)

imagine my surprise when I found out that Klein—who graduated from UCLA in
2005 with a degree in Political Science—is ready to declare the liberal arts a failure. In his Bloomberg column from last week, “Harvard’s Liberal Arts Failure is Wall Street’s Gain,” Klein argues that
“…Wall Street is filling a need that our education system should be filling.” This need is “…the need to learn skills, rather
than simply learn, while in college.” (He thinks that other high-visibility recruiters like consulting firms and Teach for America are also filling this alleged need by attracting “very smart, completely confused” graduates.)

Every employer
I’ve ever talked to has told me that this argument is completely bogus. They
want people who can speak well and write well, and people with quantitative
skills. Small, focused liberal arts courses are perfect for developing these
general skill sets.

If Klein is making the more local argument that colleges aren’t
schooling their students in professionalism,
he’s probably right: Faculty tolerate tardiness and a general lack of
preparation way more often than they should. If employers knew they could trust
liberal arts students to be professional, maybe they’d hire more of us.

the argument is much more expansive to this, and much more threatening to the liberal arts philosophy. For college graduates, Klein argues,
a job with a consulting firm, Wall Street or TFA is “…a low-risk, high-return
opportunity that they can try for a few years and, whether they like it or hate
it, use to acquire real skills to build careers.” Klein thinks this a problem
because these skills should somehow be taught in college. (Tellingly, he never indicates what these “real skills” are—are they constructing derivatives, evaluating business models, or developing lesson plans?)

I do agree that it’s a problem that so many “very smart, completely confused” college graduates end up in consulting and finance. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with certain graduates choosing to work in these industries. When done right, they provide what are probably necessary and valuable services. But there’s no reason why they should ever be viewed as the obvious next step for liberal arts graduates.

There’s a reason they’re often looked at this way. When Klein calls these “low-risk, high return” jobs he seems to mean that they entail a limited (if demanding) commitment of a few years, and successful completion of this commitment results in elevated status and marketability.

If this kind of “low-risk, high-return opportunity” sounds
familiar, it’s because it’s a lot like a Claremont Colleges education. Grade inflation largely forecloses the possibility
of failure, and after four years we graduate with a degree from
a top-ranked college. (This is not to say that the Claremont Colleges can’t present adversity and challenges, only that these challenges aren’t usually academic.)

The real “failure” of our education is not that it
doesn’t provide us with the “real skills” that would increase the supposed payoff conferred with our degrees. It’s that this education conditions us to continue
expecting this payoff without actually risking
anything. With this conditioning, it makes a lot more sense to take a job in
finance or consulting (or with my own future employer, TFA) than to start at
the bottom of an industry that won’t secure your future status and might require a long-term commitment. If
our liberal arts education was willing to dress us down, hold us to higher
standards, or force us to actually risk something during our time here, then
maybe we’d be more willing to risk something afterwards and eschew the allure
of the “high-return” options.

In other
words, the liberal arts are doing just fine. Its critics are failing. And so, maybe, are its students and its stewards.

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