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A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees

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The liberal arts major is often lampooned: lacking in "skills," unqualified for a professional career, underemployed. But studying for the joy of learning turns out to be surprisingly practical. Unlike career-focused education, liberal education prepares graduates for anything and everything--and nervous "fuzzy major" students, their even more nervous parents, college care The liberal arts major is often lampooned: lacking in "skills," unqualified for a professional career, underemployed. But studying for the joy of learning turns out to be surprisingly practical. Unlike career-focused education, liberal education prepares graduates for anything and everything--and nervous "fuzzy major" students, their even more nervous parents, college career center professionals, and prospective employers would do well to embrace liberal arts majors. Just look to Silicon Valley, of all places, to see that liberal arts majors can succeed not in spite of, but because of, their education. A Practical Education investigates the real-world experiences of graduates with humanities majors, the majors that would seem the least employable in Silicon Valley's engineering-centric workplaces. Drawing on the experiences of Stanford University graduates and using the students' own accounts of their education, job searches, and first work experiences, Randall Stross provides heartening demonstrations of how multi-capable liberal arts graduates are. When given a first opportunity, these majors thrive in work roles that no one would have predicted. Stross also weaves the students' stories with the history of Stanford, the rise of professional schools, the longstanding contention between engineering and the liberal arts, the birth of occupational testing, and the popularity of computer science education to trace the evolution in thinking about how to prepare students for professional futures. His unique blend of present and past produces a provocative exploration of how best to utilize the undergraduate years. At a time when institutions of higher learning are increasingly called on to justify the tangible merits of the liberal arts, A Practical Education reminds readers that the most useful training for an unknowable future is the universal, time-tested preparation of a liberal education.


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The liberal arts major is often lampooned: lacking in "skills," unqualified for a professional career, underemployed. But studying for the joy of learning turns out to be surprisingly practical. Unlike career-focused education, liberal education prepares graduates for anything and everything--and nervous "fuzzy major" students, their even more nervous parents, college care The liberal arts major is often lampooned: lacking in "skills," unqualified for a professional career, underemployed. But studying for the joy of learning turns out to be surprisingly practical. Unlike career-focused education, liberal education prepares graduates for anything and everything--and nervous "fuzzy major" students, their even more nervous parents, college career center professionals, and prospective employers would do well to embrace liberal arts majors. Just look to Silicon Valley, of all places, to see that liberal arts majors can succeed not in spite of, but because of, their education. A Practical Education investigates the real-world experiences of graduates with humanities majors, the majors that would seem the least employable in Silicon Valley's engineering-centric workplaces. Drawing on the experiences of Stanford University graduates and using the students' own accounts of their education, job searches, and first work experiences, Randall Stross provides heartening demonstrations of how multi-capable liberal arts graduates are. When given a first opportunity, these majors thrive in work roles that no one would have predicted. Stross also weaves the students' stories with the history of Stanford, the rise of professional schools, the longstanding contention between engineering and the liberal arts, the birth of occupational testing, and the popularity of computer science education to trace the evolution in thinking about how to prepare students for professional futures. His unique blend of present and past produces a provocative exploration of how best to utilize the undergraduate years. At a time when institutions of higher learning are increasingly called on to justify the tangible merits of the liberal arts, A Practical Education reminds readers that the most useful training for an unknowable future is the universal, time-tested preparation of a liberal education.

30 review for A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees

  1. 4 out of 5

    Staci

    1.5 stars Wow, Stanford. That's what this book is really about, Stanford (oh, and a liberal arts education but only as it pertains to Stanford). The people profiled in this book have the advantage -- that not every liberal arts major will have -- of a "Stanford pedigree and the way the school's reputation for selectivity confers a competitive advantage to its job-seeking graduates over those who went to less selective schools". In one of the chapters Stross mentions that employers may regard "adm 1.5 stars Wow, Stanford. That's what this book is really about, Stanford (oh, and a liberal arts education but only as it pertains to Stanford). The people profiled in this book have the advantage -- that not every liberal arts major will have -- of a "Stanford pedigree and the way the school's reputation for selectivity confers a competitive advantage to its job-seeking graduates over those who went to less selective schools". In one of the chapters Stross mentions that employers may regard "admission to Stanford as a proxy for general intelligence and drive--qualities that presumably were present on the first day that the students had arrived on the Stanford campus" and thus it is the school itself, more so than the major, that may have benefitted the people profiled in this book. Stross even states as much, WITHIN THE FIRST THREE PAGES OF THE BOOK: "For the most part, the graduates are not hired because of their choice of major but despite it. They were hired in many cases with the help of Stanford alumni connections". It's not exactly clear just who the intended audience of this book is: students who are considering or already pursuing/completed liberal arts degrees? The parents of said students? Employers? Whatever the intended goal with this book, I do not think it meets it clearly or well. Furthermore, the chapter on Herbert Hoover (and, frankly, most of the chapters about the history of Stanford which are interspersed with the chapters about the various Stanford graduates profiled) seems to actually go against what seems to be the topic of this book: Hoover's education was in mining and geology, more "practical" fields, than liberal arts are traditionally considered. Hoover himself is mentioned, at the end of that chapter, as advocating for a college education that was a "technical education, undiluted by humanities". In fact, Stanford itself was founded to provide a more "thorough, practical, useful" education and not, as Leland Stanford put it, to "[launch] young men on the world void of such practical knowledge of any calling as will enable them to earn their living at once". Liberal arts graduates from Stanford who are actually successful are so almost in spite of what their university's founder(s) intended for them.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Dan Graser

    Imagine you decide to write a book that will detail why Liberal Arts majors are great employees. Think about your methodology for a moment. Now, did you come up with any of the following: 1) Hand-picking a few students who already fit your model and use that as your entire data-pool. 2) Choose said students from a singular prestigious institution, say, Stanford perhaps? 3) Acknowledge that in several of these cases it wasn't their degree but connections they had from school/family. 4) Intersperse r Imagine you decide to write a book that will detail why Liberal Arts majors are great employees. Think about your methodology for a moment. Now, did you come up with any of the following: 1) Hand-picking a few students who already fit your model and use that as your entire data-pool. 2) Choose said students from a singular prestigious institution, say, Stanford perhaps? 3) Acknowledge that in several of these cases it wasn't their degree but connections they had from school/family. 4) Intersperse random bits of Stanford's history between these anecdotes without even a strand of chewing gum to connect any of this. 5) Abandon the idea of forming a causal model/mechanism and incorporate no large-scale data across the field or cite any meaningful statistics to support your hypothesis? If you did not then likely you could have written a better book than this, and no, I'm not exaggerating. As someone who has four degrees in the arts, is a professor in a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of Music, Theatre, and Dance, is a fervent believer in the value of a liberal education, and is a professional musician; even for me this is about the worst defense the Humanities/Liberal Education has ever had. Upon completing this, the wisdom I was able to glean is that Stanford is a good school and some of their wonderful students get jobs not totally related to their majors. Mind. Blown. Ignore this text, for the sake of humanity and the Humanities.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Stross's heart is in the right place, and his message that "liberal arts education is vocational" greatly needs to be heard. But, boy, was this poorly written, elitist, and infuriating. It's sad when the book trying to boost liberal education also reemphasizes its worst stereotypes. And Stanford is not all liberal arts education--far from it. A poor attempt at a noble goal. Stross's heart is in the right place, and his message that "liberal arts education is vocational" greatly needs to be heard. But, boy, was this poorly written, elitist, and infuriating. It's sad when the book trying to boost liberal education also reemphasizes its worst stereotypes. And Stanford is not all liberal arts education--far from it. A poor attempt at a noble goal.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Chris Jaffe

    Well, that was disappointing. Note to self: never let Randall E. Stross ever argue anything on my behalf. Yeah, this book was crap. One of two things is going on here. Either: 1) This book is pretending to be a book defending the liberal arts while actually being a 240-page promotional material on behalf of Stanford University, or 2) Stross is a Grade-A moron. The first scenario is far less likely, but if true at least the book would be something other than an unmitigated failure. Stross argues in Well, that was disappointing. Note to self: never let Randall E. Stross ever argue anything on my behalf. Yeah, this book was crap. One of two things is going on here. Either: 1) This book is pretending to be a book defending the liberal arts while actually being a 240-page promotional material on behalf of Stanford University, or 2) Stross is a Grade-A moron. The first scenario is far less likely, but if true at least the book would be something other than an unmitigated failure. Stross argues in the opening that the liberal arts are underrated and it does prepare people for a productive future. Just because they don't clearly point to any particular vocation doesn't mean they won't help in a person's career. To prove this, Storss, says he'll look at recent liberal arts grads from one place, Stanford University. Right there the book drives off the road and into the ditch. An obvious rebuttal can be made: If the students he points out become successful, couldn't you argue that it's because they, y'know, WENT TO STANFORD, and not because of their liberal arts major. In fact, Stross acknowledges this problem -- and then proceeds to hand wave it away; as if noting the massive flaw in his methodology means that he's dealt with it. Er, no. The rest of the book ping-pongs back and forth between two types of chapters: stories of liberal arts majors from Stanford who made it, with chapters detailing the history of Stanford itself. OK, let's pause here for a second. What on God's green either does that second type of chapter have to do with the book's overall point? No clue. In fact, Stanford's history largely undermines Stross's point. The school began as a way to offer practical education, as opposed to the Latin/Greek classical education that many other places offered. Stross spends a chapter on Herbert C. Hoover a Stanford alum who got a degree in engineering. Yeah, way to argue on behalf of liberal arts! Even the chapters on Stanford liberal arts majors do a terrible job making his case. Ultimately, they're just a string of anecdotes. I mean, anecdotes are good. They help flesh out the points you're trying to make. But anecdotes work better when they flesh something out with bones beneath it. Where's the evidence that these stories are indicative of anything more than the life stories of these people? Hey - 10 liberal arts grads from Stanford got decent jobs and look back fondly on their education .......is there a point? Any data to back this up? Any surveys? Seriously - anything? Even worse, some of the stories actually do a better job backing up the claim that a Stanford degree is what matters. A helluva lotta Stanford grads here end up with jobs in the Silicon Valley tech industry, which we are (repeatedly) told heavily recruits from Stanford. We're specifically told at one point that Google loves hiring Stanford grads. My favorite moment comes when one Stanford liberal arts grad, getting discouraged at her trouble landing a job, has a breakthrough moment when the person conducting her job interview ... also went to Stanford. A started reading this book because I was intrigued. I kept reading it despite being disappointed. I continued on, just hate-reading, because Stross was blowing it so badly. By the last third or so, I was more skimming than reading. It was pretty clear that Stross was doing a terrible job.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Betsy

    I tried. I really did. I’m 70 pages in and cannot go on..... As a proud liberal arts advocate I was hoping to gain some nuggets and other insight to share about the value and practicality of the liberal arts for either students, parents, employers or even those of us in higher ed. This book is an utter failure. He failed to profile a variety of students/schools across the spectrum of academic ability, financial means etc. This is a history of Stanford - interesting for a select few. This is NOT a I tried. I really did. I’m 70 pages in and cannot go on..... As a proud liberal arts advocate I was hoping to gain some nuggets and other insight to share about the value and practicality of the liberal arts for either students, parents, employers or even those of us in higher ed. This book is an utter failure. He failed to profile a variety of students/schools across the spectrum of academic ability, financial means etc. This is a history of Stanford - interesting for a select few. This is NOT about the liberal arts. So who should read this book? 1. The tour guides and Admissions Office at Stanford. 2. College juniors/seniors of incredible (huge emphasis here!) privilege to learn about getting a job. 3. Anyone who thinks starting a university sounds like fun... Not you? Skip it. Move on.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jim Elyot

    In the early pages of his book, Stross does not hide the fact that it is exclusively about Stanford. Perhaps if that were mentioned in the title, many readers would stay away. As it is, this is a somewhat interesting history of Stanford U, interwoven with feel good stories of Liberal Arts graduates who persevered. Good writing is a skill. Editing is an art. Stross skillfully spends 240 pages, to take the reader to the true meat of his story - the final 20 some pages. The vignettes are far too lon In the early pages of his book, Stross does not hide the fact that it is exclusively about Stanford. Perhaps if that were mentioned in the title, many readers would stay away. As it is, this is a somewhat interesting history of Stanford U, interwoven with feel good stories of Liberal Arts graduates who persevered. Good writing is a skill. Editing is an art. Stross skillfully spends 240 pages, to take the reader to the true meat of his story - the final 20 some pages. The vignettes are far too long, and heavy with detail. This is not a bad book, just one that takes too long to make its point.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Nam Lai

    a hopeless book for unemployed

  8. 4 out of 5

    Bailey

    I liked this a lot, it gave me hope (and counter-arguments) for people who say my soc/gwss major is useless.

  9. 4 out of 5

    George Han

    "The truth shall make you free" "The truth shall make you free"

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mark

  11. 5 out of 5

    Bailey

  12. 5 out of 5

    Raven

  13. 5 out of 5

    Brett

  14. 4 out of 5

    Preethi Krishnamurthy

  15. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn Caplan

  16. 4 out of 5

    A.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Conner Imbody

  18. 4 out of 5

    Dan

  19. 4 out of 5

    Mohd Faiz Hilmi

  20. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Smith

  21. 5 out of 5

    Elvi Sumini

  22. 5 out of 5

    Mike

  23. 5 out of 5

    Maurice Savard

  24. 4 out of 5

    lnynhi

  25. 5 out of 5

    Gregory Linton

  26. 4 out of 5

    Hoàng Phước Muội

  27. 4 out of 5

    Mimi

  28. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Kleven

  29. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

  30. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

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