Revenge of the Liberal Arts Graduates?

Geoffrey Moore, author of the pathbreaking and essential business book Crossing the Chasm, just blogged about the Davos ’07 theme "The Shifting Power Equation." Moore says:

The shift from computing to communications also has profound implications for the redistribution of power. As the Internet continues to work its transformation of the globe, the single most powerful force it is unleashing is memes, that class of ideas that are uniquely able to capture people’s imaginations and shape their behavior. Some of these memes are inspiring and uplifting (think spirituality and altruism), some are crass and banal (advertising and, yes, much blogging), and others are dark and pernicious (sexual exploitation and suicide bombing). All are vying for a commitment from each of us, and when we give that commitment, we give it for free and put all our life energy behind it. That is what makes memes so powerful.

The ability both to create and promulgate such memes and to recognize when a meme is acting upon you or one of your constituents is core to being effective in this new reality. A connected world places an enormous premium on people who are fluent in communications: expressing ideas, positioning offers, inferring power relationships, decoding nuances, deflecting the manipulations of others. We are witnessing the rise of the articulate and the marginalization of the inarticulate, whether in our political and business leaders or in our leading brands and most favored Internet sites.

 

In sume, if the past few decades were heralded as the revenge of the nerds, the next few will be the revenge of the liberal arts graduates.

I basically agree.

As a side note, however, I do believe that notwithstanding "this new reality," as Moore says, liberal arts degrees are not for everyone. Despite the fact that my entire family has been educated at liberal arts colleges, and I myself am heading for one, I still am a fan of vocational schools and specialized degrees. The fact is a lot of people would be better off if they went to a vocational school after high school instead of straight into the workforce. Unfortunately, vocational schools are often demeaned, especially by intellectuals. This Wall Street Journal op/ed notes:

A reality about the job market must eventually begin to affect the valuation of a college education: The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason–the list goes on and on–is difficult, and it is a seller’s market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman’s job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?

This is similar in theme to the wonderful essay called "Shopclass as Soulcraft," (called one of the best essays of the year by David Brooks) which is about a guy who left his job at a think tank to be a car mechanic — and found it more stimulating and challenging on every front.

5 Responses to Revenge of the Liberal Arts Graduates?

  1. This meme is not new. Waaaaaayyy back in the 80s when I was in college, there was a lot of talk about how liberal arts degrees were more valuable than mere engineering degrees because we were more well rounded. Then the Bush 41 recession hit and boy-oh-boy did well-roundedness not matter. Unless you mean the ability to match colors with pop songs at the Gap.

    That said, certainly communications skills are more important than ever, and social media make them more relevant in the general marketplace…. but you know, Sergey and Brin and Pierre Omidyar seem to be doing just fine with their engineering degrees. :)

  2. Wendy says:

    I think you’re right on Ben, that both vocational degrees and liberal arts degrees are important. There is room for everyone in this new economy.

    Good writing skills are becoming increasingly scarce in the corporate world, despite their importance, likely because they were de-emphasized for years in high school and college. Scarcity makes them more highly valued.

    The best career advice I would give any students, but especially business, engineering, and science students is to take writing or writing-emphasis courses as your electives in school. Your career will go so much farther if you have the communication skills to explain your ideas and accomplishments.

    Plus, if you’re a good communicator, it opens alternative career doors if your engineering or science background doesn’t lead to a satisfactory career path.

  3. Dave Jilk says:

    Does GM comment on how one *monetizes* a meme? All this yammering may cause people to do even more yammering about the same topic and even join your side, but if you ask them to spend money, they’re going to want to know what it does for them and how much it costs; and although articulateness doesn’t hurt in the process of persuasion, it doesn’t affect the underlying value proposition.

    Note also that the movie Office Space contains a similar theme – Peter ends up leaving software development to work construction.

  4. Chris Yeh says:

    I have both a liberal arts degree and an engineering degree, and I can say categorically that neither necessarily helps one become a great leader and communicator.

    Rather than focusing on majors and degrees, people should focus on their activities and passions. I probably learned more from becoming a TA and lecturer, than from attending classes.

  5. Chris Yeh says:

    Or looking outside academics, from joining a improv comedy group and helping plan the Viennese Ball.

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