Reading, Writing, and Real World Skills

There’s a bit of a debate on why Harvard sends so many of its grads to become assholes on Wall Street (as opposed to exciting point guards in the NBA?). Ezra Klein argues it’s because Wall Street (and Teach for America) model their hiring processes on the application processes Harvard kids excelled at to get there in the first place, making it more likely grads with little direction will default into one of those positions. His solution is to make sure Harvard teaches more “skills” in college to make students more comfortable applying for the kinds of jobs (Ezra suggests) you find listed on Monster or Craigslist.

The issue isn’t that so many of their well-educated students want to go to Wall Street rather than make another sort of contribution. It’s that so many of their students end up feeling so poorly prepared that they go to Wall Street because they’re not sure what other contribution they can make.

My hunch is that we have underemphasized the need to learn skills, rather than simply learn, while in college.

Matthew Yglesias disputes that liberal arts schools don’t teach skills.

This seems mistaken to me. In order to do well in courses on 19th Century British Literature or Social Anthropology or Philosophy or American History in a properly running American college, what you need to do is get pretty good at reading and writing documents in the English language. These are very much real skills with wide-ranging practical applications. Clearly relatively few people are professional writers, but a huge amount of what goes on at the higher levels of a typical business is a steady stream of production and consumption of reports and memos. If you can compose an email that’s 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you’re going to get ahead in a wide range of fields.

Now, as to the question of how to get Harvard kids to embrace something useful rather than Wall Street, I think the debate thus far (see also this piece) has ignored a few key details. One thing that distinguishes kids at elite liberal arts schools is that either because of more generous financial aid or their parent’s affluence fewer of them have to work their way through school (and those that do often work in work-study jobs at school). Those kids at state schools working 30 hours to pay for classes? You can bet they graduate knowing how to apply for a job.

Those that don’t often acquire real world skills via extracurriculars (not to mention internships, but that’s a whole different issue). When a Communications student of mine asked me once whether she should take my class or manage a band, I told her to do the latter, because it would teach her a bunch of skills she’d use in any Communications-related career, that she could put on a resume. That said, it’s worthwhile to distinguish between extracurricular activities that serve a networking purpose and those that offer an opportunity to learn real world skills. A lot of what you’re paying for at elite liberal arts schools is a network, but that network is a lot more likely to land you on Wall Street than saving the world.

All that said, I want to go back to the question of the skills you learn. I think it’s too easy to say that knowing how to write a good 19th Century English Lit paper prepares you to write an effective email. Knowing how to write a good 19th Century English Lit paper teaches you how to write a good English paper; it may in fact teach you piss poor habits for writing emails. (Frankly, I used to find science and econ majors were better writers than English majors.)

Back when I managed a department that did corporate writing projects–the kind of things corporations would pay obscene daily rates to have fairly recent college graduates do for them–I hired a mix of tech writing and liberal arts grads. The former knew how to write emails. They knew how to use the latest software–and competing brands. They knew industry conventions on … how to write an email. They knew bullets and fonts and desktop publishing, all critical to what we did.

The liberal arts grads turned out to be poorer writers for our purposes, at least at first. They were wordy and used too complex vocabulary and often had problems structuring documents (says the liberal arts grad notorious for writing wordy complex posts!). But they were far better at solving problems. They were the ones at a kick-off meeting who could quickly understand someone’s business processes. They were better at asking questions and usually more willing to push back against arrogant execs.

And while it has been almost a decade since I taught, I found the same problem there. In 2002, I assigned junior and senior Comm majors a project that required them to work in multimedia, assuring them they could just do a very simple webpage. Only, just one of them was very comfortable doing the simplest HTML. I ended up doing a special class for a skill that, I’ve seen since in more industry focused schools, would have been part of a freshman introduction.

So I think top liberal arts schools can strive to offer their students more (particularly the students who can’t afford to learn these things on unpaid internships during the summer).

And while I think that’s an issue that could be fairly readily addressed, I think it points to a larger problem with the way this country treats humanities, specifically. The real skills one learns in humanities majors are incredibly valuable in the real world. But very few of the professors teaching them can (and in many cases, want to) explain why that is. But that’s a topic for another post.

33 replies
  1. noble_serf says:

    My rule for office communications.

    Conclusion. Supporting facts.


    Fact. Fact. Fact
    Fact. Conclusion.

  2. justbetty says:

    I would have thought so many Harvard graduates ended up on Wall Street to continue their path to higher social status – having nothing at all to do with skills. I also was under the impressions that the more recent entries in Wall Street firms were math whizzes who came up with these formulas that led to such bad outcomes – not being base don real life but on theoretical concepts. But what do I know, not being part of that world at all?

  3. Larry Roberts says:

    I am looking forward to your post about how the real skills one learns in humanities majors are incredibly valuable in the real world, and just what those skills are.

    In some ways it may not matter but can we be sure that the skills in question were learned in college – or does college allow a student to demonstrate skills, habits, and attitudes that were acquired elsewhere?

  4. emptywheel says:

    @justbetty: Actually, when I was at Amherst, mediocre English grads were being recruited heavily as well. They’re looking for the not inconsiderable analytical skills learned at these schools, not necessarily math (at Amherst you don’t even have to take any math classes, as I did not).

  5. emptywheel says:

    @Larry Roberts: Those skills should be about handling nuance and complexity, doing analysis, identifying and dealing with unfamiliar patterns.

    And while I think people have aptitudes or not (a lot of this comes from wide exposure to unfamiliar things), it is surely honed in college. Not least bc high school teachers are often pushed to teach to a test (the best obviously do much more than that), where college profs and instructors should be able to encourage their students to conduct more open ended thought.

    FWIW, I think I would have ended up being a math/science whiz if it had been taught as an open-ended pursuit in high school (I won the math and science awards in senior year, and then never took anything beyond sociobiology and econ 11 again (though I totally ruined the curve for everyone else in Econ 11).

  6. orionATL says:

    harvard aggregates and institutionalizes teenagers who are good at taking tests, who (and whose parents) are socially competitive, and who have good extra-curricular stories to plump out their application.

    that’s their competence going in and their competence coming out.

    that’s undergraduateuate cadre.

    as for graduate education, you just can’ beat the tediously technical, ethically bankrupt education of amoral strivers at harvard law.

  7. P J Evans says:

    I’ve been viewing education as
    elementary school teaches the basic skills needed to function
    high school teaches more advanced skills, including how to learn
    college hands you the materials, and you teach yourself (with help from the instructors/professors)

  8. Peterr says:

    A lot of what you’re paying for at elite liberal arts schools is a network, but that network is a lot more likely to land you on Wall Street than saving the world.

    As I was finishing my junior year as an econ major, I saw all of my classmates headed for placement office interviews with Wall Street firms — something I had absolutely no desire to do. “So if I don’t want to do that, what do I want to do?” Looking at that question was the first step on my path toward seminary.

    (Frankly, I used to find science and econ majors were better writers than English majors.)

    I agree with respect to econ majors, but Garrison Keillor’s Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM) might say that as I have a degree in economics, I’m biased in that assessment.

  9. bourbaki says:

    Regarding why so many Harvard undergraduates end(ed?) up on wall-street I highly recommend Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. The author was trained as an anthropologist and did the field work for her thesis (which became the book) on Wall Street.

    The author makes a number of very interesting (and convincing) arguments about the cultural practices of American high finance. In particular, she studies the sheer amount of recruiting these companies would do at places like Harvard and Princeton (the other ivies where much much less recruited). As she documents, essentially every week there would be an event (with free food and often free booze) where various higher ups from these companies would come and tell the Harvard undergraduates how smart they (the undergraduates) were and how if they wanted to be around other important smart people they had better come to Wall Street.

    She also discusses why the companies recruited so heavily from Harvard and Princeton (and it it really was remarkably…at the height something like 40% of Harvard graduates were going to work in finance). Roughly speaking she saw it more as reinforcing certain power structures rather than any particular skill.

    I highly recommend the book if you are interested in understanding what the hell has happened in the last decade (at least).

  10. posaune says:

    How interesting to study how the Bail-out & its Build Up would have differed if: 1. the Wall Streeters had a truly effective Applied Humanities education (and a willingness to push back); and 2. Courant Institute had failed to recruit Nobel laureate Leontief to establish an Econometrics Dept at NYU — which fed the derivatives model-makers to Wall Street.

    note: mr. posaune was one of the recruitees & turned them down in spectacular fashion (which was why I married him, btw).

  11. emptywheel says:

    @bourbaki: Yeah, the whole debate was influence in it, and I read the article. But it didn’t really teach me anything I didn’t already know from having attended Amherst several decades before the crash (Bain and Goldman Sachs were huge Amherst recruiters).

  12. emptywheel says:

    @posaune: I’ve always been fascinated by teh difference between Harvard and Amherst, both of which are top schools in their segment. I’ve known a lot of Harvard people who craved traditional recognition. Amherst has a lot of that too, of course, but it seems to celebrate its non-traditional successes just as much as its CEOs and Presidents (a good thing, bc the only President it has produced was Coolidge). So there is a real cultural issue, IMO.

    Love the story about mr. posaune. And what was that “spectacular fashion”?

  13. thatvisionthing says:

    Craig Murray’s 2007 Rectorial Speech at Dundee University in Scotland, on the purpose of universities, when he was under the gun:

    A university must be a place of stimulating intellectual debate across not only the myriad topics of academia, but on the issues of the day affecting society as a whole. The best minds must clash and spark, and students must be fully and intellectually engaged. A university must constitute a vast whirring machinery of the mind, reacting to and operating on the wider society of which it forms an integral part. It must be a place of the liveliest and best informed debate, where no subject is out of bounds, or over-respected, or immune from the heat of debate. A university must be a democratic discussion. If it is not that, it is not a university.

    We must be unapologetic that a University is about much, much more than training to get a job. The over-emphasis of vocational training bedevils higher education. Of course your career is important; but you have the entire rest of your life to be a slave to it. You don’t have to start now. The student who concentrates purely on his future career leaves here equipped for only a small part of life. I learnt vastly more in discussions with people of other academic, social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds in bars and kitchens, and from private reading, than I ever did in the lecture theatre. In my formal university learning I acquired skills of logic, analysis, ordering and debate. A University Education must teach you to think, not just to stack widgets. And that is true across every one of our disciplines ?” as relevant to nurses and dentists as to lawyers.

    Was good.

  14. Larry Roberts says:

    @6 (emptywheel) “Those skills should be about handling nuance and complexity, doing analysis, identifying and dealing with unfamiliar patterns.”

    Could you describe specific assignments in the humanities that would develop these skills? Do you think humanities teachers and their students have development of these skills in mind when they work on assignments?

  15. Assaf says:

    I wonder how all those reading skills learned at Harvard prepared Yglesias to support the Iraq War ? Of course despite being a young adult he didn’t comsider joining the war effort other than entering into the punditry brigade where now he is an expert on everything from foreign policy, transportation, basketball, global economics (including Japanese economics), etc etc

    Yglesias is a pundit extraordinaire

  16. coral says:

    Wall Street wants new recruits who are smart, well-connected in moneyed social networks, and comfortable in elite circles. The skills required are social.

    The appeal of a career in finance for recent graduates of elite colleges is money. Lots of it. Finance is one of the highest paying fields, especially at the entry level.

  17. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Having been a student at a small liberal arts school, as well as a large state university, it seems to me that one of the key problems is that too many faculty have limited backgrounds. By the time they get tenure, they’re uber-focused on their specialties. That creates a whole other set of problems.

    I suspect that we live in a culture where too many kids have so much structure in their lives that they flail when left to their own devices.

    I’ve always thought Steve Jobs’ comment about Gates — that he’d have been better off to have dropped out and gone traveling — was spot on. And Steve Jobs dropped out of (a very solid liberal arts) college, and IIRC, went off Walkabout in India for a spell. If he learned nothing else, Jobs probably realized he could manage to feed himself and function. That’s not a small thing on the cusp of adulthood. But that took guts, and too few people have that kind of chutzpah.

    Having also dropped out and Gone Walkabout in that period of the 70s, I’m convinced that my genuine education occurred along byways and walking trails, in campgrounds and museums.

    There are good colleges doing good things, but a formal education can be a limiting thing. The best schools, it seems to me, broaden the experiences of their students. And the best students are avid readers; people who don’t read can’t begin to write well.

    I found it both interesting and delightful that the man who has chronicled the rise and fall of Wall Street — Michael Lewis — was an Art History major at Princeton. He is clearly and independent, analytical thinker, and picking that major probably took a mixture of dumb luck and chutzpah. But it taught him to LOOK at things and portray them in detail, and the world is better for it. Judging from his narrative style, Lewis is probably a prolific reader.

    • bmaz says:

      rOTL!! Long time, no see. Don’t be so scarce my friend. And I agree about the kind of technical, structured form education has taken on over time. Far too little emphasis to thinking critically across different disciplines.

  18. klynn says:

    EW, as you know, our oldest, son-of-klynn, applied to (and was accepted to) an even mix of engineering schools and liberal arts schools. When he explained to the engineering schools that he wanted to maintain his second and third language skills as a compliment to his engineering skills he would be developing, he was told, “No, look elsewhere.”

    He decided on a liberal arts school that is known for a strong pre-professional program that partners with a top engineering school after his 4 years at the liberal arts school. He is required to complete a writing proficiency requirement which involves learning important document writing skills as well as critical thinking and problem solving skills as applied to writing. He is also required to complete a public speaking/communications proficiency and community service requirement. He has to complete 7 courses that are critical thinking based as well. He will complete all his pre-engineering classes, accomplish his goal to maintain his second and third languages and then head off to complete two years of his engineering specialization.

    His end goal is to become an engineer with strong writing, people and verbal skills — in three languages. He is very happy with his decision and has a paid engineering research internship to boot.

    He realized a while ago that he looks at the world differently…

  19. Bob Schacht says:


    Wall Street wants new recruits who are smart, well-connected in moneyed social networks, and comfortable in elite circles. The skills required are social.

    The appeal of a career in finance for recent graduates of elite colleges is money. Lots of it. Finance is one of the highest paying fields, especially at the entry level.

    And the fruit of this tree is….
    Larry Summers
    If you like him, then you love the Harvard System.

    I applied to Harvard when I was a senior in HS because, well, my brother went there, and Harvard had the reputation. He wound up teaching philosopy at U. of Illinois for his entire career. I wasn’t accepted, and wound up in Big Ten schools. I wound up doing better than I ever would at Harvard, where I would have been a misfit, and probably wouldn’t have survived more than a year or two.

    Bob in AZ

  20. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    @bmaz: Very kind of you, bmaz. Glad to see familiar names on the threads ;-)

    Dylan Ratigan has a segment on 2-21-12 highlighting the high cost of student loans, and how that is impeding students across the nation.

    I did teach a few years in higher ed (uni and community colleges) and my experience was that some students were so horrendously stressed out over money that it impacted their ability to study, particularly if they were parents themselves.

  21. readerOfTeaLeaves says:


    Far too little emphasis to thinking critically across different disciplines.

    Therein lies the root of many of our woes, probably including quite a few on Wall Street.

    This is a pestilence of the modern world.

  22. DWBartoo says:


    Ah, bmaz, critical thinking and, as well, building the skill sets for original, meaning independent, principled, and transformational thought, as you say, ” … across different disciplines”, is a big part of it.

    I would suggest that the possession of a functioning moral compass or, more often, simply not possessing such a “thing”, is also a very significant part of this current “situation”, which is so adversely impacting the human world, and the earth itself, for that matter, today.

    Valuing a functioning moral compass, is most often, the result of observing others, whom one admires, who do possess such a thing. It is akin to valuing the Rule of Law. In a number of very important and critical ways, it amounts to much the same thing.

    If there is a particular poverty among many who attend the “finest” universities, the ivy-league, but others as well, it is the lack of actual, good example, close at hand.

    Might it be the consequence of this specific poverty which is plaguing all of us today?


  23. posaune says:

    @emptywheel: It was the era of Lehman sweeping up “newly minted” (g*) math ABDs from Courant (and NYU losing their NSF capitation grant as a result) — and Lehman tickling the ABDs with their “new” communication system, just post DARPA email! Mr. posaune declined the offer via email, encrypted, of course, which sent them into a tizzy. And then I married him (uh-post dissertation).

  24. 4jkb4ia says:


    Hey, this is the wrong blog for someone to have already written my comment :)

    It could be brought out a little more that these places sell themselves as Harvard after Harvard, and do it with flattery about the recruitees’ intelligence and talent. The recruitees need give up none of the status or the environment of constant learning that they are used to.

    I guess I am behind this post. I earned a math degree because it was something that you could use on a desert island and did not involve indoctrination one way or the other, but almost every mathematician outside academia has to know something else that is practical, even if it is physics. Unless you are Google or Microsoft or a university, you don’t hire pure thinking. You hire the ability to help you solve your problems here and now, today. Even the Wall Street firms are going to hire a certain number of smart warm bodies based on the opportunities in “the market”.

  25. Bob Schacht says:

    @4jkb4ia: I got a math degree, too– but I had a double major, with Anthropology. I figured that math gave me the tools, and Anthropology meant that I could study anything. My career was in Anthropology, but I’ve used the math (and computer science) frequently.

    Re: Moral Compass
    It’s not taught anymore because, in this relativistic age, no one knows what it is. When our founding fathers talked about “God-given, inalienable rights,” they were thinking of what was, in essence, implicitly a Christian moral compass. When people talk of “universal human rights,” they are referring, implicitly, to an internationalized consensus based on the Christian moral vision. But we can’t call it what it is because then the Jews, Buddhists, and atheists would complain and file lawsuits.

    Obama is attempting to cut through this Gordian Knot by referring frequently to American values. And he is very careful to name only values that there really is a substantial consensus about. But if one were to try to *teach* this, one would immediately run into boundary issues, i.e. values about which there is less consensus but still treasured by important minorities– that is, the list of values has no definitive end. This is partly the Republican problem: Their moral compass is supposedly based on Christianity, and sometimes overtly labelled as such, but they are rather selective in following it.

    Bob in AZ

Comments are closed.