Shaffer: Yale is not a trade school

Over the din of deferential students’ voices and the clomp of leather-soled shoes on the basketball court, one phrase was persistently repeated by the Yale alumni manning the Career Fair tables of some of the world’s most lucrative consulting firms and banks. “I haven’t used anything,” say our former classmates, now gelled and pin-striped, “that I learned from my economics major.”

Then why is economics one of the most popular majors at Yale? Why are “Introductory Microeconomics” and “Financial Theory” lectures packed while Renaissance studies vanishes and humanities continues to flounder?

Partly it is because many — perhaps most — students love economics for its own sake and know that studying economics is more important for understanding the world than it is for stuffing your wallet. Karl Marx got a few things wrong, but he was right that economics drive history. So too, our most important public policy debates revolve around questions of how to distribute resources and intervene in markets — questions of which economics is the ultimate arbiter. So our Socratic duty to know our world and our humanitarian duty to improve it both require us to understand economics. But economics is so popular, we suspect, at least in part because many people think it will help them in a future career.

It’s no secret that Yalies like lucrative jobs in finance and consulting. Despite all the flippant criticism hurled at the “sell-outs” who take such jobs, finance and consulting are so remunerative precisely because they are so valuable to society.

By reducing waste and allocating resources to the most efficient possible uses, consultants and financiers, when behaving properly, help increase social efficiency so much that everyone — including poor people, starving artists and impecunious hipsters — is made better off. The well-being of our favorite art museums, opera houses and charities is dependent upon their donations and management expertise.

As such, Yalies shouldn’t be ashamed of wanting these jobs, nor should they be discouraged from pursuing them. But we should feel troubled that so many students feel pressure to take courses which alumna after alumnus confirms do not actually increase job productivity and are less enriching than humanities courses.

Back to the question: If seemingly career-oriented courses won’t help our careers, why do we feel compelled to take them for the sake of future financial security? To use economic terminology, we are stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma created by the hiring process. Taking “Financial Theory” won’t actually make us better bankers, but by familiarizing us with financial jargon and proving our genuine interest in the trade, it might give us an edge in the initial hiring. In other words, it won’t make any difference in how we perform in our jobs, but it might determine whether or not we get the jobs in the first place. Thus, we all feel an economic pressure to do things that make us all worse off in the long run.

Over the summer I met a banker and recent Notre Dame graduate at (I confess) a Harvard Club event. He told me he loved modern theology and Renaissance literature. But he had also always wanted to be a Manhattan financial elite. If he majored in literature or theology at Notre Dame, interviewers would have asked him, “Why not finance?” So he majored in finance — which has now become one of the largest majors at a university once devoted to the contemplative life. He now claims that nothing he learned from his major has benefited him in his job. Many like him forwent a liberal arts education for the sake of something that only benefited them for three interviews. Ideally, he could have used his four years at Notre Dame to enrich his appreciation of theology and literature, while still getting an elite job afterwards.

As a lover of both fields, I certainly don’t wish to set up an adversarial relation between economics and the humanities. Both are essential for a comprehensive understanding of the world. But studying the social sciences with an eye to garnering marketable skills is problematic. A university cannot usefully impart these skills (nor should it), and when it tries to do so it merely deprives its students of a humane, liberal education.

What goes for economics is true of all social sciences. The quantitative political scientist with the ability to run regressions and with factual knowledge about contemporary politics may, in the initial hiring process for a think tank, journalism job or political consulting firm, have an edge over the political philosopher who is abstractedly ponderous about the respective merits of Plato’s “Republic” and Aristotle’s “Politics.” But the latter student will have a more enriched understanding of politics over time.

Recruiters for the most desirable employers will continue to come to Yale because we’re the best. The University neither can nor should impart marketable skills to Elis. But when it tries to, or when it lets students and recruiters think that it can, it creates a prisoner’s dilemma, forcing us to choose between real education and financial security. It’s a choice we shouldn’t have to make.

Students, avoid classes that impart mere skills. Administrators, purge them. Everyone, find those classes designed to impart Truth with a capital T. Yale University is one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the world, not a trade school. Let’s keep it that way.

Matt Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.


  • Joseph


  • Rotgelb

    What, exactly, did Karl Marx get wrong?

  • Y09

    And how glad we should be that at Yale, all we can inflict upon ourselves is a handful of finance courses that are not generally vocational (i.e. how-to-balance-my-company’s-checkbook) but academic, historical, and theoretical seminars on issues that are truly ripped from the headlines. The same goes to our pre-meds, who must prepare with a handful of classes (or two) even if they are English majors. The same applies to our architecture majors, who must go even further in preparing for their vocation at the expense of taking every Renaissance studies class tucked away in the Blue Book.

    I was a History major and now have a job with an investment bank. Sometimes I feel arrogant assuring the people that I meet that my liberal arts education is so damn good that I needn’t have trained for the job for which they might have spent years preparing. (Once you’re an alum you’ll realize how silly it sounds trying to make that argument to someone who did not do a Yale/Harvard tour of duty and is also in business.) THAT SAID, I can’t imagine pulling that off from a non-target school like Yale, which is at least afforded an interview process that respects charisma and evidence of hard work.

    One of the most important pieces of career wisdom I believe Yale instills in its student, no matter whether you wish to go into the arts or medicine, is to constantly reevaluate and see many options rather than a single career path. Even ask any Yale i-banker whether that’s the career for them, and they’ll probably tick off all the other things they want to do that seemingly have little to do with their present job. We’d all agree though, that such a mindset is unusual in any field.

    So I reiterate, how glad we should be that we went to Yale, because it’s worse, far worse, beyond the neo-Gothic walls.

  • anonymous

    You are indeed the best! I love the humility.

  • PhD Student in Engineering

    Well said — I would have lost my mind had I not pursued a humanities minor during my undergraduate.

  • Weber

    Karl Marx said that religion was the opium of the masses when he should have realized that government is the opium of the intellectuals.

  • alum

    “Recruiters for the most desirable employers will continue to come to Yale because we’re the best.”

    um, yeah, except there’s also Wharton, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, MIT, etc…

    “Students, avoid classes that impart mere skills”

    maybe you can major in theology or history and get an entry-level job in investment banking… if you want to work on a derivatives trading desk, you better have top notch statistics and programming skills (VBA, R and Matlab- if not C#/C++). It’s a disservice to readers applying for these jobs to tell them that functional skills don’t matter. The world’s a competitive place and certainly doesn’t owe you anything just because you did a BA at a good school.

  • Hieronymus



  • Robert Schneider

    Well put Weber!

    The writer of the article did a good job. I wish he had been in a position to offer this additional perspective on the decline of humanities programs at Yale. I just don’t think most of those programs are as good as they were 30 years ago. Frankly, I wouldn’t go near the Yale English Department these days. And that’s not the only one.

  • Bob F

    In my day, we heard Kingman Brewster warning against creeping professionalism. Happy that the sentiment persists.

  • History PhD candidate in the midwest

    This piece is wonderful and I will be sharing it with my present and future students.

    I would like to add one thing though. A college major can never prepare you for the future, no matter how vocational it may be, because no one can predict which skills will be needed or which jobs will exist in the future. When I was an undergraduate, many of my friends majored in computer science for the sake of getting a great job. Ten years ago they got great jobs, but now their skills are so common that they have little control over their work. The coders and programmers I know are now little different from plumbers; both have skills to solve particular problems, but, unlike the coder or programmer, the plumber controls his own hours and isn’t a slave to the whims of his employer. Sadly, these computer science majors lack the self-reflection inherent to a liberal arts education and cannot really grapple with why they are so unhappy despite their supposedly good jobs.

    Had they gotten an education and not a vocation, they might also have minds flexible enough to seek different work.

  • History PhD candidate from the midwest

    In the 10 September 2007 issue of Newsweek, Gail Morrison, the head of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, reported that about 40% of those admitted to the program had non-science backgrounds.

    In that same article, Wesleyan reported that it has seen an increase in medical schools seeking out its liberal arts majors.

    Why? Many can master the basics of pre-med courses, but few outside of the liberal arts know how to think.

  • reader

    I would think a humanties grad from Yale makes more than a humanities grad from Wisconsin on average but an engineering grad from Wisconsin makes more than a Yale humanities grad. Basically, the marketplace rewards hard work- an applicant gets credit for getting into Yale (demonstrated hard work in high school) and the Wisconsin engineering grad gets credit for the hard work needed to get through a more challenging undergraduate curriculum.

  • Yale grad student- not in history

    History PhD candidate-
    40% of those come from a non-science background because it is really, really hard to maintain a high GPA doing undergrad science.

    The average Penn med student gets around a 3.80 GPA undergrad- which if you can get that in science indicates you have the aptitude to do meaningful research at the PhD level.

    And computer science is a “vocation” while history is an “education”? this statement smacks of undeserved arrogance-and is completely erroneous.

    have you taken an elementary CS class? the abstract reasoning and problem solving skills needed rival that of any other academic field.

  • Yale 08

    This is a very admirable article that both serves as a reminder of what a Yale education’s true objective is and that also demonstrates that awareness of this objective is still alive and well in New Haven.

    Much as pieces such as this offer hopeful insight on today’s graduates, they all have a troubling undertone in their indirect albeit nearly universal assertion that students who pursue finance, strategy, or similar-type jobs are doing so because they feel a need to pigeonhole themselves professionally rather than because they have a genuine interest in these field. Although not all students choose some professional routes for this reason (it is the wonderfully fortunate minority whose passions are aligned with the work they do), it remains a timeless reality that when a person does something in which they lack true interest, professional — if not personal — unhappiness is inevitable. Thus much as we should bemoan the risk of teaching our students vocational skills, we should also be vigilant that we discourage them from pursuing an endeavor if their hearts are not fully engaged.

  • Lady Gaga


  • Y09 engineer

    I studied engineering not because I thought I would get a high-paying job, but because I was curious about how the world works and how I could contribute to that. I learned about design and the thought process involved in creation. I’m not sure how these “skills” are not “education” and failed to teach me how to think.

    “few outside of the liberal arts know how to think” – and apparently few inside of the liberal arts know how to make unbiased and objective statements backed up by fact. I’m tired of this divide. Science, math, engineering, economics, and other fields that might impart “skills” are the way that humans understand the world and universe in which we live. They have plenty of Truth with a capital T. There is no reason that someone studying the humanities shouldn’t take a few “skills” classes to learn more about the world and how to observe it from another viewpoint, anymore than there is a reason that someone in a more “vocational” course of study shouldn’t expand his or her understanding by taking classes in the humanities. I guess it’s all about the attitude with which you approach the study – are you there to learn, or are you there to pad your resume? The attitude you bring to the classroom absolutely will affect what you get out of a course.

    I would also like to add that education goes far beyond the classroom, even during the college years, and especially after. It was outside of the classroom, learning far more vocational things like how to run an organization, that I truly learned about myself and others. But what do I know, I have an engineering degree and I’m floundering about just as much as any humanities major.

  • Yale Engineer

    Even as an engineer I know that Yale prides itself not in teaching key skills and industrially relevant material but focuses on the theory and fundamentals that define an engineer. Maybe the result is that we are not considered as desirable and hirable to the industry as “real” engineers but I am happy to say that I am comfortable at tackling unconventional problems and thinking outside the box. As Yale engineering claims in its mission statement, they aren’t training engineers, they are training leaders of engineers.

    Even as a science or a “vocational” student as others may call us, you should pay attention to this article.

  • Yale Engineer

    A good piece indeed. As an engineer, I know that the Yale curriculum doesn’t emphasize many industrially relevant problems or useful skills but rather focuses on the theory and fundamentals that define an engineer. So maybe compared to “real” engineers, we’re not as desirable or hireable to the industry, I feel that I am able to tackle unconventional problems and think outside the box. As the Yale engineering mission statement proudly proclaims, they not training engineers, they are training the leader of engineers.

    So even if we are “vocational” majors, as others may call, we are learning how to learn at Yale and how to solve problems. Even the science majors should heed this article.

  • Engineer

    History PhD Candidate-

    Like #14, I also challenge the claim that few outside the liberal arts majors know how to think. Consider engineers, who use scientific knowledge in a practical manner to solve real world problems. Everything that you see is a product of an engineer thinking–just like you, a history student, think about your dissertation. Just because we’re using math and science does not mean we’re not analytically thinking.

  • Alum

    To number 7,
    I’ve worked on a derivatives trading and structuring desk for over a decade. The best structurers I have met include former mathematics professors, lawyers, and geophysics majors. The ability to program helps you to work on a derivative trading desk. The ability to think on your feet helps you to run the desk.


    OH noes! Who would have thought that Yalies would spend their ridiculously expensive tuition on getting a ridiculously high-paying job?!?!

  • ’09


    how are you going to run the desk if you don’t work on it first?

    I agree with #7. I’m having a really hard time finding a job because I don’t know enough accounting or computer programming. Wish I did something more technical than econ in retrospect.

  • ac

    “Karl Marx said that religion was the opium of the masses when he should have realized that government is the opium of the intellectuals”…clever, but I hope this zinger wasn’t aimed at Marx’s theories, because if so, it betrays a total lack of knowledge about what marx actually says…Marx sought (and also predicted) a stateless society; the state, to marx, was an instrument to enforce class hierarchy. So, he would probably agree with what you said. Please put down the NY Post, stop attributing American “liberal” agendas and 20th communist countries, to Karl Marx.

  • haha

    what a glorified view of consultants and financiers….eliminate waste? consultants are the epitome of waste…you know that old saying “Consultants steal your watch and then tell you the time”… there’s a reason we all know this saying.


    Back off, he’s taken.

  • 21

    I got a derivatives job by borrowing the manuals of friends who went through the training program at Lehman and Solomon Bro’s. Easier to be convincing…. I took a survey of the guys on the derivative desk who work for me and we have graduates with degrees in Geophysics, Chemical Engineering, Math, Art-History, Law, Physics, Applied Math, Philosophy,….and an interesting data point: zero economics grads.

    Micro seems particularly pointless and before the econ majors in the crowd take offense, we didn’t invest or lose any money in structured credit derivatives