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.