‘You Can Do Anything’

In his new book, George Anders makes the case -- in part with data often used against the liberal arts -- for what he calls the “surprising power” of such an education.

October 20, 2017

Robots are taking over the world (and the job market). Majoring in anything but a science or engineering discipline is foolhardy. A humanities or social science degree will get you a great job -- as a barista.


Read enough internet headlines and all of those might seem not only feasible but inevitable. But like many sweeping, future-looking statements, those and other proclamations about the decline and fall of the liberal arts should be taken with a truckload of salt.

George Anders's You Can Do Anything (Little, Brown and Company) is the latest book (others here and here) to make the case that students (and colleges and universities) should not shun the liberal arts. While designed mostly to help students arm themselves for the world of work -- Anders, a contributing writer at Forbes, brings a consumer focus to You Can Do Anything -- the book's use of job-market data and plentiful anecdotes about students, institutions and programs will probably prove compelling to career services administrators, faculty members and anyone else hoping to encourage a liberal arts major they know.

Via email, Anders answered questions about the book, which follow.

Q: You Can Do Anything is among a set of new books that challenge the prevailing narrative that technology and artificial intelligence threaten to make the liberal arts and they skills they build irrelevant. Yours doesn’t run from job or salary data to make that case, but cites them directly to make the case that the “new pessimism” about those fields is “out of step with what broad economic data tell us.” How so?

A: A close look at the data shows good news on two fronts. First, the U.S. economy has created at least 626,000 jobs -- and perhaps as many as 2.3 million -- since 2012 in what I’m broadly calling “the rapport sector” or the “empathy economy.” These arise in areas such as project management, digital marketing, graphic design and genetic counseling. Such work not only pays quite decently; it also requires an ability to solve problems by understanding different points of view. This work is tailor-made for liberal arts graduates.

Second, broad-based earnings data from PayScale, a Seattle labor-research firm, shows that many liberal arts majors achieve strong midcareer incomes even if they start slowly at first. It’s a mistake to focus only on starting salaries, which highlight the short-term value of preprofessional degrees in fields such as nursing or accounting. Take the longer view, and you’ll find that philosophy or political science majors pull ahead after a decade or so. Their midcareer earnings average about $80,000 a year, noticeably ahead of RNs or CPAs.

Q: You compare analysis of the job market in today’s environment to studying the topography of Hawaii’s Big Island, where volcanic eruptions constantly alter the coastline, with new fields cropping up that “prize the strengths that emerge from a robust liberal arts curriculum: curiosity, discernment, adaptability and a prepared-for-everything gusto that can turn chaos into triumph.” You make the case that while technological change may be driving the emergence of these new fields, many of the needed positions are what you call “bridge-building jobs” that marry C. P. Snow’s “two cultures.” Can you explain this phenomenon?

A: The eye-opener for me involved a series of visits to OpenTable, the online restaurant-reservation company. It makes much of its money selling customer-behavior data to restaurants. OpenTable needs only 14 data experts to crunch the numbers nationwide, but getting restaurateurs to accept and embrace these findings is much more challenging.

So OpenTable employs more than 100 restaurant relations managers to fan out across the U.S. with iPads, meeting the proud, prickly people who run high-end restaurants and suggesting ways of putting this data to use. Many of these specialists happen to have majored in English, psychology or similar nontechnical fields in college. Small wonder; the key skill in such jobs involves a knack for lucid communication and an ability to win the restaurateur’s trust. Such jobs are quite new; they didn’t exist a decade ago. And they bear out the notion that rapid advances in software are creating huge demand for people who can humanize tech in ways that make it usable (and even appealing) for the rest of us.

Q: We are in an era in which “success” (for students, academic programs, colleges and universities) is increasingly being judged by short-term job outcomes and incomes. Parents of current and prospective students, especially, seem to be focused on that, to the point that counselors for low-income high school students tell me they often hear parents pushing their children into business and vocational fields over the humanities and social sciences. Yet you advise readers of your book that “the greatest payoff for your college education is likely to be years away, perhaps in your fourth job, perhaps in your seventh.” Will students and parents be that patient? Will the politicians and policy makers who are devising accountability systems (which often focus on short-term outcomes)?

A: This quandary worries me. Other countries admire America’s creativity, which comes largely from giving people room to roam around a lot in their educations and in their careers. Yet we seem to have lost confidence in one of our greatest strengths. We’re wanting higher education to be a source of career stability -- when it’s actually much more valuable as a source of career mobility.

It’s important to acknowledge how much the student-debt explosion has shortened people’s time horizons. A lot of the exciting, meandering career paths that I describe are a lot more feasible if you’re not one missed paycheck away from financial ruin. I’m glad to see that some (well-off) colleges are making it easier for students with limited means to graduate with little debt. A bigger rethink of higher education finances is needed, so that the freedom to explore doesn’t seem like an unaffordable luxury.

Q: Why do defenders of the liberal arts and nonvocational higher education struggle so much to explain the value of terms like “critical thinking”? Can you describe the analysis you undertook to try to improve on those arguments? And in a (partially) related question, do you believe there are labeling problems with terms like that and “liberal arts”?

A: Within academia, critical thinking is celebrated as a process. That resonates poorly with employers -- whose world is defined by results, results, results -- even though they want what critical thinking can accomplish. We’ve got a translation problem on our hands. To illuminate this, and to offer a way out, I rounded up thousands of job ads from big employers (Apple to Allstate) that asked for “critical thinking” and paid at least $100,000. Poring through them, I found five ways that the abstractions of critical thinking get translated into the realities of employers’ needs. The key elements: a willingness to work in uncharted areas, the analytic skills needed to generate strong insights, expert decision making, a knack for reading the room and persuasive communication.

The more that liberal arts graduates can demonstrate that their time with diphthongs or Descartes has imbued them with these five skills, the easier it will be to impress potential employers.

I started this book with the belief that the “liberal arts” name encapsulated so many valuable strengths that recent labeling anxieties could be overcome. I haven’t abandoned that view, but I’m open to alternatives.

Q: Are colleges and universities as a collective group doing enough to prepare their graduates for a life of work? Are they (and should they be) focusing more on long-term rather than short-term skills and competencies? To what extent are the campus career services improvements that you highlight at places like Wake Forest, Brigham Young, Indiana and Rutgers Newark representative of broader trends or outliers? And to what extent is workplace readiness a domain of the faculty (and appropriately embedded in the curriculum) as opposed to a co-curricular matter best left to career services?

A: Each academic department is its own story, but the message from student enrollment trends is stark. Academic disciplines that are seen as career useful will attract more students. Ones that are seen as career useless will atrophy. Fortunately, it’s possible to celebrate learning for its own sake and weave in a sufficient amount of career readiness, too. BYU’s initiatives with Humanities Plus are exemplary. Career services departments alone can’t carry the whole load, but I’m impressed with the way that a single career class -- or more active bridges to recent grads in the work force -- can help current students in any discipline graduate with a good shot at a collegeworthy job.

Solutions are embryonic but developing rapidly. In the book, I chose to highlight schools making rapid progress, with the hope that good habits will spread. We still have a lot of faculty that are puzzled, brittle and defensive about what it takes to get a job in the real world -- and we can’t turn all of them into part-time career counselors. But I came away convinced that young-alumni networks are a vital, untapped resource. Recent grads know how to get that first job, and they’re eager to share. I’d like to see alumni-relations offices spend less time hunting for giant donations and more time fostering life-changing connections that span the graduation-day divide. This can be hugely helpful for first-generation students, who might arrive on campus with less social capital than their peers -- but who shouldn’t leave that way.

Q: Is the current disdain/lack of respect for the liberal arts a momentary or a permanent condition -- and if the latter, is it serious enough to degrade them such that we see them vanish for all but the privileged?

A: Ah, the ultimate dystopian scenario! I’ll take the challenge. Even in the bleakest future, people’s desire to learn can’t ever be crushed. I’m imagining a noisy cybercafé, full of degenerates playing first-person shooter games, in which a few patrons slip into a back room, bolt the door and draw the curtains. They are janitors, hospital orderlies and nannies by day. But at night, it’s a different story. One of them pulls out a tattered copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract. And the spirit of intellectual discourse takes hold again.


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