Speaking on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, David Rubenstein reportedly criticized policy initiatives that push students to orient themselves toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The real scarcity, he apparently asserted, is in problem solving and critical thinking skills—both of which may be gleaned from the study of humanities, and which over time would yield lucrative rewards. Hence the Rubenstein Hypothesis of Return on Education: “H = MC. Humanities equals more cash.”
Now I have my doubts as to the veracity of this hypothesis. I suspect the odds of a humanities student becoming an executive on Wall Street—the example he purportedly mentioned—are exponentially higher for those who attend an Ivy League university, or one of a handful of other target schools (e.g., Duke, Georgetown, Stanford). I also suspect that humanities students are likely to earn more cash if they polish off their education with a professional degree.
But I also think he’s on to something.1 When it comes to critical thinking skills, the world needs not only people who know how to do things, but also those who can determine why and which things must be done in the first place. As academia and labor markets become more fragmented and specialized, should not the applicability of technical education narrow?2 Surely there is a need for individuals who can synthesize findings and conclusions from diverse disciplines into a coherent whole, what E.O. Wilson refers to as Consilience. And if more students pursue technical degrees, would not the laws of supply and demand accrue to the benefit of the liberally educated?
It just so happened that the night before reading Rubenstein’s quote, I finished Carroll Quigley’s massive tome Tragedy and Hope.3 Quigley, who was one of my father’s more memorable professors at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service—and whose influence percolated down periodically—lamented that advancement in education itself had become a process of technical mastery.4 Tilting against the rise of illiberal education, Quigley quoted a report from Wilbur Bender, a former Chairman of Harvard’s Admissions Committee, in a passage that is too delightful not to be shared:
The student who ranks first in his class may be genuinely brilliant or he may be a compulsive worker or the instrument of domineering parents’ ambitions or a conformist or a self-centered careerist who has shrewdly calculated his teachers’ prejudices and expectations and discovered how to regurgitate efficiently what they want. Or he may have focused narrowly on grade-getting as compensation for his inadequacies in other areas, because he lacks other interests or talents or lacks passion and warmth or normal healthy instincts or is afraid of life. The top high school student is often, frankly, a pretty dull and bloodless, or peculiar fellow. The adolescent with wide-ranging curiosity and stubborn independence, with a vivid imagination and desire to explore fascinating bypaths, to follow his own interests, to contemplate, to read the unrequired books, the boy filled with sheer love of life and exuberance, may well seem to his teachers troublesome, undisciplined, a rebel, may not conform to their stereotype, and may not get the top grades and the highest rank in class. He may not even score at the highest level in the standard multiple choice admissions tests, which may well reward the glib, facile mind at the expense of the questioning, independent, or slower but more powerful, more subtle, and more interesting and original mind.5
In my own naked self interest, I am hopeful that Rubenstein’s hypothesis holds in the real world. And as a citizen, I would tend to prefer leaders with an appreciation for the institutions and ideas that have shaped humanity’s journey over technocrats quick to break a few eggs in pursuit of a scientific truth.6 We live in human societies, after all.
However, even if the study of Aristotle, Thucydides and Machiavelli leads us not to larger withdrawals from ATMs, education in the humanities can offer rewards perhaps more enriching, but certainly more enduring.7 And who seeks to be as rich as Croesus, anyway?8
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1 In the spirit of disclosure, I should note that David Rubenstein gave one of the most memorable and inspirational talks I’ve ever attended, and it makes me somewhat of a partisan. As a graduate student, I got wind that Rubenstein was coming to campus to give a speech. I snuck into the event—this is during the depths of the global financial crisis—to join maybe 20 people who showed up. I half expected Rubenstein to come up with an excuse to leave to attend to more pressing matters, but he stayed for over an hour telling stories, asking and answering questions, and sharing his journey from growing up the son of a postal employee in Baltimore, to his meandering career path that found its way to a momentous meeting at The Carlyle Hotel in New York.
2 Education is a topic to which this blog may return at some point.
3 I skimmed some of it.
4 This has only continued with the growing importance attached to standardized tests.
5 As quoted in Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time (1966), pg. 1274 .
6 On the subject of breaking eggs, I recommend Jim Powell’s The Breaking of Eggs.
7 See, for example, Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics.
8 See Herodotus, The Histories.