College: Making The Case For Useless Degrees

During my junior year of high school, I sat near the window in English class. I wanted to be an engineer, so during most classes, I daydreamed about applying early to MIT while the class rambled on about short stories by Philip Roth. But sometime in the spring, not long after we'd finished a lesson about some strange thing called "transcendentalism," and started reading Shakespeare, I kicked my best friend Crary's chair.

Henry David Thoreau and Elizabethan sonnets had suddenly piqued my interest—I was fascinated, bewildered, hooked. Since his mother had been forcing books on him since he was 3 months old, Crary seemed to know everything about everything. "Where does any of this lead?" I asked him. "There's a major in college called comparative literature," he said. "They read books together like this all day long." It sounded intriguing, but I was dumbfounded. "What in the world would be the value in that?"

I later learned that there's actually a huge value in it. Computer science, accounting, marketing—the purpose of many majors is self-evident. They lead to well-paid jobs and clear-cut career paths. (One hopes, at least.) But comparative literature, classics, and philosophy—according to the new conventional wisdom—offer no clear trajectory. As my colleague Nancy Cook reports, many schools are even slashing liberal arts from their curriculum. It's true that studying the humanities will surely elicit snide comment from your uncle like, "All that studying so you'll be able to ask, 'You want fries with that?' " You should tell your uncle to shove it. Majoring in the liberal arts is still the best use of your college tuition.

A degree in history or religion or languages can be anything you want it to be. Say you're interested in a career that makes lots of money. After a few years of work, an M.B.A. would be a good bet. But an undergraduate degree in business isn't necessarily going to give you a leg up. "We obviously take people with marketing or business backgrounds," says Bruce DelMonico, director of admissions at the Yale School of Management, "But we don't value those over liberal arts or humanities backgrounds." Stats don't lie. One in five of the school's 2010 class was a business major, the same number majored in humanities. "It's not a question of, 'do you have the particular classes,' but it's do you have the mindset, the temperament, the intellectual horsepower to succeed?"

In your first job out of college, pretty much everything is going to be learned at work. From there, erecting a successful career means moving onto a new position by building on prior work experience more than it does falling back on a Methods of Accounting or Communicating Your Message Effectively class from your junior year. In fact, there is a good chance that when you're pitted up against four other candidates and you can explain to the hiring manager how your history degree has helped you understand complex problems in perspective, you'll stand apart as someone who's more insightful than the others who are just towing the line.

For centuries, Ivy League institutions have considered the liberal arts the bedrock of a sound education. In 1919, Columbia College began offering its Contemporary Civilization class, a cornerstone of its "core curriculum," which the school still demands of every undergraduate today. "The Core classroom thrives on the most difficult questions in the human experience," the school's Web site explains. Through classes in the humanities, writing, foreign languages and sciences, Columbia develops in its undergraduates, "critical tools of observation, evaluation, and judgment that translate into all spheres of life." Evidenced by its estimable reputation—as well as its long list of wildly successful alumni—the plan demonstrates the value of a well-rounded undergraduate experience. But you don't have to go to Columbia, Harvard, or Yale to get it—I studied philosophy and, yes, comparative literature at the State University of New York at Binghamton. And, 10 years hence, I've found that these kinds of "critical tools" reap endless benefits.

Of course, my case crumbles if you want to, say, go to medical school. Or be an engineer. Or be a nurse. In that case, you're pretty much bound to studying chemistry, physics, or biology. It would be absurd to suggest that studying poststructuralist French literary theory (which is what I did, and the wisdom of that exact decision is for another discussion) would make you a great neurosurgeon. It wouldn't. But the vast majority of professional fields—from the law, to the military, to writing, to academics, to teaching, to hospitality, to administration, to management, to business, the list goes on and on—can be had with a strong, foundational, liberal-arts degree.

When being tried for his life, Socrates offered up a defense of philosophy by declaring that, "the unexamined life is not worth living." Who would disagree with that? But more importantly, being able to engage others intelligently about art, music, and politics may actually make you an enjoyable person to be around. I'm not suggesting that all computer science or physics majors are bores. I mean, Google founder Sergey Brin is unquestionably on my top-five-people-to-have-dinner-with list. But even in this relentlessly digital age, there's much to be said about learning about what it means to be human. And yes, that can indeed get you a good job.

As for my friend Crary? He studied history. And now he's climbing the ranks at one of the country's premier law firms.