It’s graduation season in the United States, which means the season of commencements speeches – a time for canned jokes and wise words. This year I was asked to do the honors at Sarah Lawrence in New York, a quintessential liberal arts college. So I thought it was worth talking about the idea of a liberal arts education – which is under serious attack these days.
The governors of Texas, Florida and North Carolina have all announced that they do not intended to spend taxpayer money subsidizing the liberal arts. Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott, asks, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” Even President Obama recently urged students to keep in mind that a technical training could be more valuable than a degree in art history.
I can well understand the concerns about liberal arts because I grew up in India in the 1960s and ’70s. A technical training was seen as the key to a good career. If you were bright, you studied science, so that’s what I did.
But when I got to America for college, I quickly saw the immense power of a liberal education. For me, the most important use of it is that it teaches you how to write. In my first year in college, I took an English composition course. My teacher, an elderly Englishman with a sharp wit and an even sharper red pencil, was tough.
I realized coming from India, I was pretty good at taking tests, at regurgitating stuff I had memorized, but not so good at expressing my own ideas. Now I know I’m supposed to say that a liberal education teaches you to think but thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. When I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them.
Whether you’re a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant or a historian, writing forces you to make choices and it brings clarity and order to your ideas. If you think this has no use, ask Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.
Bezos insists that his senior executives write memos – often as long as six printed pages. And he begins senior management meetings with a period of quiet time – sometimes as long as 30 minutes – while everyone reads the memos and makes notes on them.
Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly and, I would add, quickly, will prove to be an invaluable skill.
The second great advantage of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to speak and speak your mind. One of the other contrasts that struck me between school in India and college in America was that an important part of my grade was talking. My professors were going to judge me on the process of thinking through the subject matter and presenting my analysis and conclusions – out loud. Speaking clearly and concisely is a big advantage in life.
The final strength of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to learn – to read in a variety of subjects, find data, analyze information. Whatever job you take, I guarantee that the specific stuff you will have learned at college, whatever it is, will prove mostly irrelevant or quickly irrelevant. Even if you learned to code but did it a few years ago, before the world of apps, you would have to learn to code anew. And given the pace of change that is transforming industries and professions these days, you will need that skill of learning and retooling all the time.
These are liberal education’s strengths and they will help you as you move through your working life. Of course, if you want professional success, you will have to put in the hours, be focused and disciplined, work well with others, and get lucky. But that would be true for anyone, even engineers.
Anyway, that is a piece of the graduation talk I gave at Sarah Lawrence College on Friday. You can watch the whole thing – which has much more – online here.