Guesting over at the Daily Dish a few weeks back, Lane Wallace recounted how a crappy job taught him the value of a liberal arts education:In a flash, I grasped the true value of a college degree. It didn’t matter what I majored in. It didn’t even matter all that much what my grades were. What mattered was that I got that rectangular piece of paper that said, “Lane Wallace never has to work in a corrugated cardboard factory again.” A piece of paper that was proof to any potential future employer that I could stick with a project and complete it successfully, even if parts of it weren’t all that much fun. A piece of paper that said I had learned how to process an overload of information, prioritize, sort through it intelligently, and distill all that into a coherent end product … all while coping with stress and deadlines without imploding.
To be sure, a college degree of some sort is a good investment if you want to end up doing interesting, remunerative work, but if you’re primarily concerned about making bank, you’re probably better off sticking with business or sciences, even if you’re more passionate about semiotics. So I think Wallace actually gets it backwards here: The great value of a liberal arts education is that it prepares you to be relatively happy even if you find yourself working in a corrugated cardboard factory. Partly because books are cheap, and cultivating the ability to take great pleasure in a well-crafted novel lowers you hedonic costs down the road. But more broadly because the liberal arts might be described as a technology for extracting and constructing meaning from the world. If you know your Hamlet, you know that’s all the difference between a prisoner and a king of infinite space.
[As a side note, Lane’s description of the skills college is intended to imbue is precisely why I never finished college; I simply don’t have the temperament necessary to see projects of that nature through to their conclusion.]