The commentators excoriating today’s students for studying the wrong subjects are pursuing certainty where none exists. Like the health fanatics convinced that every case of cancer must be caused by smoking or a bad diet, they want to believe that good people, people like them, will always have good jobs and that today’s unemployed college grads are suffering because they were self-indulgent or stupid. But plenty of organic chemists can testify that the mere fact that you pursued a technical career that was practical two or three decades ago doesn’t mean you have job security today.
I was lucky to graduate from high school in the late 1970s, when the best research said that going to college was an economically losing proposition. You would be better off just getting a job out of high school – or so it appeared at the time. Such studies are always backward-looking.
I thus entered college to pursue learning for its own sake. As an English major determined not to be a lawyer, I also made sure I graduated with not one but two practical trades –neither learned in the college classroom. At the depths of the previous worst recession since the Great Depression, I had no problem getting a job as a rookie journalist and, as an emergency backup, I knew I could always fall back on my excellent typing skills. Three decades later, nobody needs typists, and journalists are almost as obsolete.
The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.
The most valuable skill anyone can learn in college is how to learn efficiently – how to figure out what you don’t know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems.