polymath.png
Ye tuneful cobblers! still your notes prolong,
Compose at once a slipper and a song;
So shall the fair your handiwork peruse,
Your sonnets sure shall please—perhaps your shoes.
Byron—English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. L. 751.

By and large, Marc Andreessen’s view of the current tech landscape is… not sunny. Speaking at NYT Dealbook’s post-election conference, the grand poo-bah of VC opined to the Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin that we are now in a “tech recession.” Why? Blame it on hypey IPOs that turned, one after another, into IP-Oh no’s + pricey acquisitions that have yet to produce more than the vaguest revenue plans.

“Recession” strikes me as a bit of fearmongering, but imagining the gnashing, skittering reactions of the solomovirtualfuntimenow! crowd delights the Scrooge in me, so I'll take it. What I'm less happy to take is this other bit of fearmongering:

“The average graduate from the average college with a degree in English is going to be working in a shoe store.”

And not just English—anyone pursuing a degree in a “soft skill” at an "average college" may as well quit now, because all they’re walking out with is a pile of debt 20,000 Sketchers can’t pay off. (Luckily for one co-founder of the Andreessen-Horowitz-backed rap translation site Rap Genius, Yale is a few cuts above average.)

So when is college worth it? According to Andreessen, go for it if you’re going to emerge with a degree in something quantitative or analytical: “anything that involves math, computers, sciences, any sort of knowledge work is going to set people up really well.” 

I have two issues with these statements:

  1. That today, all a degree in “soft skills” sets us up for is a menial job and
  2. The implication that students have a binary, all-or-nothing choice between humanities and sciences.

Let’s tackle the first, first. Marc is, understandably, looking at the economy through the prism of the Valley, where there are far more jobs than people equipped to fill them. Some of these jobs--the hard-to-fill jobs, like data science and network engineering, do require skills picked up in classes like statistics, electrical engineering, and physics. Some of them require applicants to know a certain set of programming languages. (If the latter is the case, applicants are usually judged on the strength of their portfolio and on-site demos, not on their transcripts). None of them require a degree in English.

So why do I think Andreessen is wrong? For starters, despite what its inhabitants might think, Silicon Valley's economy is not, and will not become our nation's economy, writ small. Industries and sub-industries that flourish there do so for historical, geographical, topological, and demographic reasons, as do the industries of DC and New York and Los Angeles. And while the demand for programming and data analysis jobs will continue to grow, it is unlikely to do so to the tune of 1.8 million/year, which is the number of students who got their Bachelor's in 2012. 

Andreessen is not wrong about quantitative majors being prudent choices, career-wise, but he is wrong to espouse them as being the only choices, and wrong to paint college's purpose as explicitly and specifically vocational. College does not have to prepare students for a specific career; it can also be a place where they (finally) learn to think critically and independently. And yes, it’s that objective around which a liberal arts program is built. An English major doesn’t read Sense and Sensibility in order to memorize the gospel according to Jane: she reads it to determine, for herself, what is sense and what is nonsense and what is in between.

Someone who is majoring in English or Comparative Literature or History will not walk off the graduation stage a finely sanded peg to be fitted just-so into one of fifty identical holes. Rather, she will walk off as a pair of eye glasses, adding (and in some cases, yes, subtracting) different perspectives to each wearer. These are some of the “soft skills” gained through the pursuit of a humanities degree: critical, analytical, and intuitive thinking, the ability to distill a thesis and its evidence out of reams and reams of text, and the ability to communicate these in writing. Such skills do not come with an automatic transfer into a $125k programming job, but they are skills that will make you good, or even exceptional, at your $125k programming job, or your $30k non-profit development job, or your $50k teaching job.   

All that said, what will make you better at any of the above jobs is understanding both 19th century French poetry and functional programming, or Pidgin identity in Barbados and linear regressions. No, but srsly. In "Loss of the Creature," Walter Percy proposed:

that English poetry and biology should be taught as usual, but that at irregular intervals, poetry students should find dogfishes on their desks and biology students should find Shakespeare sonnets on their dissecting boards ...

Why? The better to see the dogfish and read the sonnets, freed at last from their symbolic packages. Opposites do attract, or at least act as very nice magnifying glasses.  

And Percy was far from being the third man’s only advocate. Back in the Renaissance period, the great thinkers of the time had notably strong left and right brains (hence the term “renaissance men”). Leonardo Davinci painted the Mona Lisa and designed the earliest incarnation of the airplane. Nicholas Copernicus was capable of proposing the heliocentric model in four languages. Francis Bacon codified empiricism and wrote an eutopic novel.  Later on, Ben Franklin would edit the Pennsylvania Gazette  and start Poor Richard’s Almanack whilst messing about with lightening and inventing bifocals. And, speaking to the 2005 graduates of Stanford University, Steve Jobs described the college course that had the greatest impact on him:

[Calligraphy] was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating… Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them.

I’ve already taken up a few blog posts with my raves about the glories of interdisciplinary education, so I’ll try not to go too hogwild here. Just, know this: an interdisciplinary education gives you the best of both worlds and makes them one world that you can explore in a much deeper way. It makes questioning purported truths and seeing unmoveable solids as shaky parts easier. At one point in my college career, I was learning about Saussurean structuralism and political organizing and the NIH’s human genome project simultaneously. There may be no better examples of signs and what they signify than political propaganda and a giant representation of our DNA.

Anyways. Tying this back to Mr. Andreesen’s statements:

  1. A liberal arts education is valuable because it develops your mind, not your resume.
  2. An interdisciplinary education is even more valuable, because it develops your perception and fosters a healthy sense of skepticism.
  3. There is nothing preventing an English major from minoring in Computer Science (just ask Kate). Alternatively, you could just teach yourself programming, a la this guy, or much of the NYT Interactive Newsroom Technologies staff.
  4. There is nothing preventing a person with perhaps the “softest” degree at all, aka Independent Study, from getting a job that is many rungs removed from retail clerkdom.

One more thought: if machines continue to gobble up our jobs, the people we will need around are those with creative thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills.

So students, if you’re reading, take Jobs’ advice to heart. Stay hungry, stay foolish, and study what you love.


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