By Pria Whitehead

Last month, author and blogger Michael Ellsberg made an appearance at the Commonwealth Club to deliver a lecture on the problem of higher education. In his talk, titled “The College Industrial Complex and the Future of Higher Education,” Ellsberg addressed the question of youth unemployment in the United States and offered up a rough cost-benefit analysis of American college attendance. [Listen to his podcast.] Ellsberg’s analysis led him to conclude that higher education in the United States is, by and large, failing to prepare youngsters for the kind of work that would allow them to participate in – and contribute to – a functional domestic and global economy. He called for a change of focus away from traditional, degree-centered education and toward the accrual of practical experience – or “street cred” – through work experience within early-stage start-up companies. According to Ellsberg, start-ups comprise “the only area of the economy where one metric of success is how many jobs you’ve added.” In a domestic economy where the manufacturing sector is disappearing rapidly, Ellsberg argued, small and early-stage companies are critical to job creation. He went on to tout the value of a skill-based, “dynamic” start-up-acquired education as distinctly “non-academic.”

Two weeks prior to Ellsberg’s forum at the Club, Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein published an article in Bloomberg Magazine titled “Harvard’s Liberal Arts Failure is Wall Street’s Gain.” Klein’s article focuses entirely on a very small percentage of the college-educated population, namely Ivy League graduates who subsequently pursue careers in finance. He attributes the continually high rate of Ivy-to-Wall-Street careers to the conclusion that a few years on Wall Street after college allows students, both educationally and financially, to make up for lost time. Klein describes a Wall Street career as “a low-risk, high-return opportunity that they can try for a few years and, whether they like it or hate it, use to acquire real skills to build careers.” He goes on to say that “Wall Street is promising to give graduates the skills their university education didn’t,” and even to assert that post-undergraduate jobs in finance are “filling a need that our educational system should be filling.”

Klein’s statements seem bold and broad in their implications. While the locus of his argument is miniscule in proportion to the scale and scope of this country’s economic and educational crises, it rests on the wider assumption that a liberal arts education fails to equip young adults with the necessary tools for effective and remunerative contributions to society.

Klein’s and Ellsberg’s arguments appear similarly disdainful of the concept of liberal arts education, but the alternatives that the two columnists choose to address are mutually distinct. While Klein’s argument focuses on the established (and establishment) structure of the finance industry, Ellsberg’s concentrates on the highly dynamic, even volatile world of nascent businesses. Ellsberg is primarily concerned with the economic consequences of personal career choices, whereas Klein’s argument is explicitly wrapped up in the social and hierarchical implications of the population whose fate he queries. Perhaps important, though, is that both take care to delineate their subject matter: Klein describes his Ivy Leaguers as “kids who have ample mental horsepower, incredible work ethics and no idea what to do next,” and Ellsberg assures his audience that he’s “talking about young people who are motivated and ambitious.”

While Klein’s and Ellsberg’s arguments are roughly representative of two separate ideological camps – one hierarchical, the other network-based and vaguely collectivist – both place a high premium on a certain fortuitous combination of knowledge and moral character. The value of this combination in our post-industrialist economy is hardly arguable, wrought though it may be, but the question remains: What role, if any, might a liberal arts education play in honing it? Is it really possible that none of the types of “real skills” touted by these thinkers feature prominently in the American college experience?

In his 2008 book Disrupting Class, which calls for a new structural and curricular paradigm of compulsory public education, Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen emphasizes the need to cultivate the character-based types of skills championed by Ellsberg and Klein. “We all know,” Christensen writes, “that becoming a great athlete or a great pianist requires an extraordinary amount of consistent work. The hours of time required to train the brain to fire the synapses in the correct ways and thus hone the necessary muscle memory and thinking required is no different from that needed to learn to read and process information or think through math and science problems. Unless students … are motivated, they will reject the rigor of any learning task and abandon it before achieving success.” Christensen goes on to highlight the importance of what he calls “intrinsic motivation” toward successful achievement at the grade-school level.

Despite its focus on internal rather than external or practical mechanisms of education, Christensen’s emphasis does not entirely counteract Klein’s and Ellsberg’s arguments. Rather, the type of student who has achieved relative success through “intrinsic” motivation would appear a likely candidate for continued motivation after completion of her compulsory education. In fact, the careers that Klein and Ellsberg explore are not so much ideals as they are models or exemplars of a particular type of continued education – one that might offer a necessary dose of extrinsic motivation to a student who has garnered her initial taste of success through intrinsic motivation.

If we were to follow, abstractly, the paradigms of these three authors, the process would appear to be the reverse of what one might expect: while compulsory education would emphasize intrinsic motivation, higher (and, to a large extent, elective) education would constitute a practical and fundamentally socially (or extrinsically) driven catalyst for success.

Two questions follow. First, how might we think about motivation as viewed along a broader spectrum of education? Are intrinsic and extrinsic motivation necessarily exclusive, and/or do they necessarily occur in stages along a path to educational and professional development? Second, what types of post-secondary educational and professional models are best suited to the cultivation of the skills that are most valued in our knowledge-based economy?

Stay tuned for Part II.