Skills And The Liberal Arts

I’ve been gathering string for a longer project on higher education and one theme I see popping up all over the Internet is the idea that a traditional liberal arts education fails to deliver real skills, or perhaps fails to deliver real skills in a testable and quantifiable way.

This seems mistaken to me. In order to do well in courses on 19th Century British Literature or Social Anthropology or Philosophy or American History in a properly running American college, what you need to do is get pretty good at reading and writing documents in the English language. These are very much real skills with wide-ranging practical applications. Clearly relatively few people are professional writers, but a huge amount of what goes on at the higher levels of a typical business is a steady stream of production and consumption of reports and memos. If you can compose an email that’s 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you’re going to get ahead in a wide range of fields. Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who’s pretty good at his job and a person who’s able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans. Everyone knows that a kid growing up in rural India is obtaining valuable skills if he gets better at English, but this is equally true for a kid growing up in Indiana.

Now of course perhaps not every liberal arts program is in fact imparting reading and writing skills to its graduates. But that’s a problem of execution not of concept. It’s a fallacy to think that in an increasingly technology-performed society that technical skills will be the only sources of value. Computers are going to put accountants out of business long before they start hurting the earnings of talented interior decorators. The important point is that mastering a specific body of facts is not nearly as useful in 2012 as it was in 1962.