A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees
by Randall Stross.
Redwood Press / Stanford University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 291 pages, $25.


In today’s business culture of globalization and specialization a traditional liberal arts education is held in low esteem. At best it is considered interesting, yet of little practical use in the work-a-day world.

Ironically, it is the broadness of an education in the liberal arts, or humanities, that most prepares you for working in our global world of business. The valued degrees of specialized focus are often outdated within several years of graduation due to the rapid advance of technology. As a result the holder of such a degree is caught in a perpetual cycle of trade school-like training and certifications as previous learning and skills are rendered obsolete. And much of this ongoing training proceeds into ever more narrow content, impinging upon creativity and imagination.

This is not to imply that continuous learning is bad or that degrees in the humanities provide all the learning needed for a lifetime—because they do not. Broad continuous learning is essential to life, a truth best expressed by John Henry Newman in his maxim that “growth is the only evidence of life.” The trick is to be ever expanding your knowledge, moving outward and not obsoleting, nor necessarily replacing previous learning, rather building upon it. A liberal arts education prepares you to be a lifetime learner and is timeless in its applicability to modern life and business. This is wonderfully brought out by Randall Stross in his most recent book, A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees.

His book is one of several in a recent publishing spate on the topic of liberal arts education. Other recommended books reflecting on this topic from various viewpoints are Cents and Sensibility, by Gary Morson and Morton Schapiro; Sensemaking, by Christian Madsbjerg; You Can Do Anything, by George Anders; and the triumphantly titled The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World, by Scott Hartley. Stross’s contribution is unique in that it focuses on the graduates of one particular school—Stanford University—and graduates of its liberal studies programs.

This review takes its title from Zhuang Zi’s maxim, which speaks of wisdom being manifested in the ability to find usefulness in what many think to be useless. The full quote being, “Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.” Stross has done just this, and he does so in the shadow of the heart of the technology marketplace—Silicon Valley. He lays out nicely what ought to be common sense, the great value of a “useless” liberal arts degree. In doing so, he draws to mind Chesterton’s reminder not to follow the herd headlong into getting a practical degree and thus falling into “the degrading servitude of being a child of one’s own time.”

In his Idea of a University, Newman points out the richness to be found by students in an education that liberates the mind, unfettering it if you will, when he states that “they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting day by day.” Echoing Zhuang Zi, Simon Leys reminds us that “this sort of ‘uselessness’ is the very ground on which rests all the essential values of our common humanity.” Stross understands this and levels his sight on the bullseye as he unpacks the evolution of Stanford along with the individual journeys of a cadre of its graduates.

Founded by Leland Stanford in 1885 to be a school that provided a “practical education in things that you could make your living at,” by the 1960s 34 percent of Stanford’s graduates were in the humanities. “By 2011, the percentage had shrunk to 17 percent … half of what it had been.” To help us understand how this transition began, Stross takes us on a tour through the employment stories of a number of recent humanities graduates and reveals the university’s own evolution.

At its heart, Stanford was founded to provide a practical yet broad education; and it continues to do so. Ultimately, it was not so much the university that drove the dramatic shift in undergraduate majors as it was the parents of the students. Interestingly, the 1960s-era liberal arts majors pushed their progeny towards income-oriented educations rather than the liberal arts. It was this parental nudge to ensure a return on investment that drove the changes noted above. This makes us wonder how these recent graduates in engineering or the computer sciences benefited beyond the measurement of their employability, starting incomes, and long-term income potential. The current president of Stanford, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, pressed hard against an economic ideology, which discourages students from pursuing liberal studies, stating that “We are fighting against much of society, a society which is driving students to focus rather than broaden,” and that “This focus on immediate prospects … comes strongly from parents … and others.” Stross goes easier on parents, seeing them as simply responding to the broader cultural pressure, provided by business to specialize and bring “practical” skills to the workplace.

These areas of study are typically more focused on how to earn a living rather than how to live a life.

This is not to say that income-focused students did not get a good education or are less intelligent. It is simply an observation that these areas of study are typically more focused on how to earn a living rather than how to live a life.Considered in this regard, some truncation does take place. The quality of an education, like the quality of a life, must be measured broadly. Study in the liberal arts typically equips one to be more readily capable of taking the broad view, understanding nuance, and the broad measure. Stross pulls this together well in his chapter-based vignettes of the employment journeys and accomplishments of recent Stanford graduates who majored in the humanities.

Take the instance of Stephen Hayes. As a history major and 2010 Stanford graduate, Hayes was the epitome of the type of student Leland Stanford had hoped his school would not produce: one that is “void of such practical knowledge of any calling as will enable them to earn their living at once.” Yet Hayes did acquire many practical skills and abilities through his studies in history, where he learned “a process of honing how to learn, how to analyze the unfamiliar, how to write well, and how to speak persuasively.” After an unsuccessful start in the Teach for America program, Hayes cast his lot in the competitive employment marketplace of Silicon Valley where he landed a temporary contractor position with Google. This “gig” placed him on a team focused on improving Google’s interview and employment selection process. Hayes’s writing skills and his ability to interact easily with others served him and the team well as their work produced a less biased process and resulted in a number of candidates that became outstanding Google employees. One thing led to another and Hayes is now at Lyft where he is a key employee. He credits his success as a “fuzzy” in the tech world to his ability to “quickly acquire essential information about unfamiliar topics, distilling, rearranging, and adding his own original insights, then presenting the results.” All these are skills he developed in the process of reading history and developing his various term papers when at Stanford.

Stories like Hayes’s abound in Stross’s book. Each helps the reader dispense with the myth that liberal arts majors are unemployable or will always be underemployed. Although not accentuated by Stross, an underlying thread in each of these stories is the tenacity of the individuals. In all cases the students relentlessly pursued gainful employment; tenacious perseverance is no doubt a character trait rooted in a liberal arts education!

Stross’s book, like many others pushing the same point, ultimately seeks to justify, validate, and make acceptable the liberal arts by making the same argument as STEM advocates: getting a liberal arts degree allows you to get and spend just as well as any engineering or computer science major. Of course, I am burlesquing a bit here for effect. Stross does well at calling out the talents and skills awakened by liberal arts studies, yet his main thrust is that liberal arts majors can make money for themselves and their employers just as well as, or maybe even better than, students with other majors. While it is perhaps necessary to make this point, it does a disservice to the best reason to pursue liberal studies: to develop an ethical and imaginative understanding of life and the world around you—the created order—not to mention to develop a healthy soul and humane disposition, to cultivate the virtues, and learn how to live virtuously.

The content of a liberal arts degree varies widely from one university to another, as does the quality. Nonetheless, if undertaken with forethought, deliberate effort, and competent guidance a solid program of study can be secured, and can be well rewarded if supplemented by the independent reading of worthwhile authors whose works may have slipped through the cracks of even the best university’s program. The erstwhile student will find such a program imparts knowledge, awakens the imagination and puts one in the way of learning great and eternal truths, which will reveal the miracle and mystery of life—and ultimately the understanding that life is worth living. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, in his 2016 inaugural address as president of Stanford remarked that “the University must maintain a broad disciplinary base and ensure that student interest extends across all disciplines” and not be limited to the popular majors of the day. Such rhetoric is courageous and makes Stanford a university worth consideration by anxious parents.

Russell Kirk (one of the worthwhile authors referenced above), once asked and answered the question: “Is life worth living?” His was a life well-lived, in which he attained the “three ends or objects,” that, to this reviewer, are the true gifts of the “unbought grace of life” and a liberal arts education rightly applied:

  • “To defend the Permanent Things” … order, justice, freedom, … moral order, and cultural inheritance;”
  • “To lead a life of decent independence … a life uncluttered and unpolluted;”
  • “To marry for love … rear children … [and] to know that the service of God is perfect freedom.”

Kirk’s comments would resonate with Stross as he reminds us that as “all students can be expected to change jobs frequently in their lives, all need to be prepared to fill jobs that will evolve rapidly and to work with people with varied cultures and backgrounds, and all would benefit from [the Stanford president’s] prescription [for]: ‘a broad-based education.’”

In the end, those of us seeking to promote liberal learning in the face of strong cultural headwinds must find our courage, as Stross has, and our marching orders in these lines from T. S. Eliot’s East Coker:

… there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
… But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying.…  

Kevin P. Shields serves on the board of the Russell Kirk Center and is a vice president with ADP Employer Services.