A liberal education is now more useful than job-specific skills


It is hard to imagine life without digital search and the internet. This is as true for me as for anyone else: the greater ease of obtaining and checking relevant facts and data has transformed the life of the columnist. Pulling books from library shelves and turning their pages was never an efficient search technique, even if sometimes an entertaining and instructive one. But exercises that once required hours in a library, and were often unproductive, can now usually be accomplished with a few mouse clicks.

This change, which has taken place in the 20 years since I first wrote a column for the Financial Times, highlights wider shifts in the nature of knowledge and corresponding methods of education. Today it is less important to know, and more important to know what is known. The options trader need not be familiar with Black-Scholes equations, though he must know that they exist, and that others give them weight: the lawyer need not recall the judge’s reasoning in Bloggs v Bloggs, but must still have the higher-level knowledge that guides her search for relevant cases.

At the frontiers of knowledge, the finance academic who seeks to find a more advanced option pricing model, or the judge who must determine the case to which Bloggs v Bloggs applies, must still acquire personal mastery of all relevant information. But writing newspaper columns, running businesses, managing assets and advising clients in legal disputes are activities whose primary demand is synthesis. The ability to make connections between disparate sources of information is more critical than detailed familiarity with any specific source. This is the task that modern technology has made so much easier.

That is why the widespread belief that education should be focused more on the acquisition of job-specific knowledge is especially misconceived in the 21st century. Those who argue that more resources should be devoted to teaching Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have a point, but not the point they generally make. It is beyond scandalous that so many people in positions of influence, especially in Britain and the US, are not only functionally innumerate, but do not feel embarrassed by that innumeracy. But this is because education is excessively specialist, not because it is insufficiently vocational. In England it is possible, and common, to abandon the study of any scientific subject at the age of 15, and the knowledge that they can opt out of any quantitative discipline allows young people to avoid applying themselves to these subjects at an earlier age.

Fareed Zakaria’s book this year defending liberal education — a tradition that introduces undergraduates to a wide range of subjects and approaches to knowledge — is very much to the point. And so is his refutation of philistine Republican governors (just Google Rick Scott, Rick Perry, or Patrick McCrory), who draw cheap laughs at the expense of philosophy and anthropology. A little capacity for reflection might reveal that morality is not simply a matter of common sense or reading a sacred text, and that an understanding of other cultures — or simply an acknowledgment that there are other cultures — might have led to better outcomes in, for example, Iraq.

It is a mistake to focus basic education on job-specific skills that a changing world will render redundant in a few years. The objective should be to equip students to enjoy rewarding employment and fulfilling lives in a future environment whose demands we can neither anticipate nor predict. In 20 years, we will probably not be using the Black Scholes model, or referring to the case of Bloggs v Bloggs. But the capacities to think critically, judge numbers, compose prose and observe carefully — the capacities that education can and should develop — will be as useful then as they are today.


This article was first published in the Financial Times on August 26th, 2015.

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