by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

Thank you Lane Wallace for your defense of liberal arts.  I graduated from Carleton College in 1998, and at the time I wondered if all the time I'd spent in sociology, music theory, history, and economics courses would have been better spent back in the biology lab working on my major subject. 

I didn't find work in biology, but in IT, as at the time the world was in the full swing of the internet boom.  As such, I wondered if I should have taken more than the four computer science courses I had taken.  While my friends who went to technical schools found work right away, I had to cast about quite a bit, and had to learn on the fly.  I eventually made it to a settled job, and without getting into my rather diverse job history since then, I'm doing pretty well.

Here's the thing -- I'm only 33, and many of the technical skills I learned both in biology and in computer science courses in college are obsolete just 11 years later.  With the job market as uncertain and changing as it is now, it's many of my "distribution" courses and the ones I took for fun that are becoming the most useful.  Most importantly, though, Carleton's emphasis on writing skills, which seem to be endangered at many universities, has been a major difference-maker in my career.  That alone has opened numerous opportunities for me.

I understand the need for technical skills, but frankly one can learn most of those raw technical skills in about a year at a decent community college.  If you're going to commit four years of your life in your prime to education, it ought to be on skills that are going to last more than a decade.  With the rate of technological change, there's not one technical course of study I would be willing to point to now and be confident that the skills learned there will be relevant 20 years from now.  On the other hand, history, philosophy, sociology, economics, the outlines of scientific inquiry, mathematical theory, and yes, most of all, the ability to write, I have utmost confidence will serve the student well in any job discipline.

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