Excerpted from A PRACTICAL EDUCATION: WHY LIBERAL ARTS MAJORS MAKE GREAT EMPLOYEES, by Randall Stross, (c) 2017 Randall Stross, all rights reserved. Published by Stanford University Press in hardcover and digital formats, sup.org. No reproduction or any other use is allowed without the publisher’s prior permission.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist who had been a faculty member at Stanford, a senior executive at Genentech, and then president of Rockefeller University, was as deeply steeped in the values of STEM as it is possible to imagine. Yet when he was appointed as the president of Stanford University and gave his inaugural address in October 2016, he spoke out strongly on behalf of the liberal arts and decried how transfixed both politicians and the parents of college students were by STEM. He said the most important skills that could be imparted to undergraduate students were critical and moral reasoning, creative expression, and appreciation of diversity, and the best preparation was the broad education of the liberal arts.

To Tessier-Lavigne, the “liberal” in “liberal education” referred to “liberating the mind,” liberation that was threatened by “the mounting pressure for a vocational focus.” Nor was STEM, or specialization in any vocationally related field, helpful in preparing students to adapt over a lifetime. To convey the all-purpose usefulness of a liberal education to a student’s future work, he tried out a new tagline: “the liberal is the vocational.”

When he met with the faculty a few days later, Tessier-Lavigne observed that the fields popular at the moment, led by computer science, had not been so 20 or 30 years earlier, and may not be the most popular 20 or 30 years hence. The conclusion that he drew was the very one that a professor in the humanities or social sciences would draw: the university must maintain a broad disciplinary base and ensure that student interest extends across all disciplines.

Tessier-Lavigne gave his defense of the liberal arts prominent placement in his remarks to various campus communities, and he did not hedge his position in any way. That he had distinguished himself in his own career in the applied sciences made his defense all the more remarkable: he was not defending home turf. And though he was addressing Stanford in particular, everything he said applied to colleges and universities broadly. All students can be expected to change jobs frequently in their lives, all need to be prepared to fill jobs that will evolve rapidly and to work with people with varied cultures and backgrounds, and would benefit from his prescription: “a broad-based education.”

The one thing Tessier-Lavigne did not do was draw attention to the dispositive role of employers in determining the fate of the liberal arts. “We are fighting against most of society, a society which is driving students to focus rather than broaden,” he said. He elaborated: “This focus on immediate prospects…comes very strongly from parents but also from students, from peers, and others….” But parents and students are merely reacting to the signals that prospective employers send out in the job market. If employers were to signal an appreciation of the liberal arts, students and parents would notice.

The humanities majors profiled in this book are contrarians. They selected their majors in the face of abundant evidence that they would have considerable difficulty finding professional work upon graduation, and difficulty did come. Their stories were presented … to show that when employers give them the chance, their workplace experiences provide tangible proof of the claimed usefulness made on behalf of the liberal arts—that the liberal is the vocational….

The unifying theme than runs through the stories presented in this book is the overarching importance of character, encompassing an appetite for intellectual challenge, the defiant rejection of the easiest paths, the capacity to work hard, the drive to reach higher. Students at any campus who happen to love studying a liberal arts subject, who are willing to dive deeply and excel, should take heart in the stories here. It is character that shines through…

As for prospective employers of tomorrow’s graduates, I hope that these stories will help to restore the willingness shown in the past to consider the entire gamut of liberal arts majors for entry-level positions that do not require a specialized degree. This requires abandoning the expectation that every new hire can be completely prepared on the first day of work…The ability to learn quickly is a hallmark of those who have majored in the liberal arts; for that ability to shine, however, the candidate needs a first chance.

When employers are surveyed, they say they value the very things that a liberal education emphasizes. A 2013 survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 95 percent of employers agreed that “our company puts a priority on hiring people with the intellectual and interpersonal skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace” and that 93 percent agreed with the statement that “candidates’ demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”

To put these professed convictions into daily practice, however, the managers and teams who do the hiring must shed acquired habits of looking for particular majors when hiring non-specialists and turning away all others. Opening more doors to students who elect to major in the liberal arts…would bring a multiplicity of perspectives for understanding a complex world and a well-practiced facility for communicating that complexity to others. Nothing yet discovered is more practical for preparing for the unpredictable

Randall Stross ’76 majored in history and East Asian studies. The author of numerous books about Silicon Valley, including The Wizard of Menlo Park and Planet Google, he holds a doctorate in modern Chinese history from Stanford University and is a business professor at San Jose State University.

August 1 2017

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