By Pria Whitehead

A couple of weeks ago, I cited Michael Ellsberg and Ezra Klein in a post about questions surrounding higher education in the U.S. I’d like to return briefly to Klein’s article, which appeared in both Bloomberg and The Washington Post, in which he asserts that the migration to Wall Street among recent liberal arts graduates is indicative of the “failure” of liberal arts programs to administer a useful education to their students.

One of my first encounters with this article occurred in conversation with a friend who, himself a Harvard graduate and Bay Area entrepreneur, wholly disagreed with Klein’s premise. My friend had rather fervently disputed Klein’s dismissal of liberal arts classes in “subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills” (Klein). “What about the fact that I learned how to write, argue and persuade in college?” my friend had asked. “Does he think I could have started a successful business without learning how to write?”

Klein’s argument is compelling insofar as it provides a framework for understanding the draw of the finance industry for recent college grads, but the careful construction of this framework is perhaps too quickly subjugated to a fairly antiseptic dichotomy between the liberal arts and the world of finance. Granted, Klein is not the first to have imagined this dichotomy. In the article itself, he cites a 2008 commencement speech by the president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, in which Faust himself denounces the finance industry’s “all but irresistible recruiting juggernaut.” But in Klein’s very denunciation of an incongruity between the categories of finance and the liberal arts is an avid affirmation of – and, perhaps, contribution to – their mutual alienation.

When Klein describes the early Wall Street career as “a practical graduate school,” he seems to be referring to its compensatory pragmatism for the individual rather than to its wider social application. This individual-centric approach appears only partially fair, as it neglects the notions of accountability and cooperation inherent to any career – and perhaps especially to a career in the finance industry, which is responsible for managing massive proportions of the world’s wealth.

Yale economics professor Robert Shiller, who notoriously predicted the stock market and real estate bubbles of the past decade, appeared at the Commonwealth Club last month to discuss the rationale for his book Finance and the Good Society (Listen to the MP3 of Shiller's speech). In the book, Shiller urges readers to recognize the fundamental and large-scale contributions of the finance industry to the management of our economic, social and political assets and objectives. Though sympathetic to the criticism of the finance industry, Shiller argued in his talk that “there is a fundamental problem with being so angry at finance,” and proceeded to outline the contributions of financial capitalism to global progress. “There are some people,” he continued, “that scare others. They haven’t committed any crimes yet … but … unless they commit a crime they’re going to be out there, so we have to design a system that is nice, that encourages them to be constructive.”

Based on Shiller’s remarks, it would seem that society could draw a wider framework around the finance industry – a framework that wholly incorporates and, in some way, incentivizes social responsibility. Our system of capitalism is largely based on a correlation – not an opposition – between social good and financial gain. The fact that this balance is capable of going horribly awry suggests a reconsideration of the ways in which these two things, good and gain, might work together.

Assuming, as Klein argues, that an early-stage job in finance constitutes a type of education, perhaps it would be constructive to conceive of this kind of job as a continuation of, rather than an alternative to, a learning process. While questions surrounding the value of college institutions are paramount, the fact is that the liberal arts remain an integral part of many youngsters’ educations; one can speculate on a variety of academic and non-academic skills that such an education might hone. Perhaps a step in the right direction would be to take the numbers* that Klein cited – however astounding they may be – as a given, and figure out how better to make them work to our advantage as a society.


* “In December, the New York Times’ Catherine Rampell asked Harvard, Yale and Princeton for data on the professions their graduates were entering. As of 2011, finance remained the most popular career for Harvard graduates, sucking up 17 percent of those who went from college to a full-time job. At Yale, 14 percent of the 2010 graduating class, and at Princeton, 35.9 percent, were headed into finance.”