Gates v. Jobs on liberal arts

While Bill Gates urges governors to invest in college disciplines”that actually produce jobs,” Apple founder Steve Jobs says “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

New York Times’ Room for Debate asks which college drop-out is right?

After the first 10 years, liberal arts majors catch up to graduates in career-oriented majors, writes Edwin Koc of the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

In 2010, the average offer to a computer science major was $60,473; the average offer for a history major was $38,731.

. . . Once in a career path, the more general skills of communication, organization and judgment become highly valued. As a result, liberal arts graduates frequently catch or surpass graduates with career-oriented majors in both job quality and compensation.

Only 39 percent of U.S.-born technology CEOs hold engineering, computer or math degrees, responds Vivek Wadhwa,  director of research at Duke’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization.

Humanities students learn to write, a critical skill for the business world, argues Mark Bauerlein, an Emory English professor.

To be honest, some humanities majors learn to write.

Employers pay a premium for business majors, but humanities majors will be worth more, argues Richard Vedder of the Center on College Affordability and Productivity.

. . .  in the core business areas of management and marketing, I have long felt that the instruction is largely of limited intellectual content and little practical utility – people can learn how to sell wickets or manage a small group of employees just as well by studying engineering, communications, history, or, for that matter, mortuary science. . . . Salary data suggest that earnings rise dramatically with age, suggesting much “learning” is done on the job, and students studying intellectually weak and information-deprived courses in business are not going to have the critical thinking skills that might assist in the post-graduate learning-by-doing process.

Business is the most popular college major, followed by psychology, nursing, biology, education, English, economics, communications, political science and computer science, according to the Princeton Review.

The most profitable majors are: engineering, economics, physics, computer science, statistics, biochemistry, math, construction management, information systems and geology, says WalletPop.

On Payscale’s list of degrees with the best mid-career pay, a government degree is the top earner that isn’t math-centric. Business majors aren’t high on the list.

About Joanne


  1. Michael Hammer, the noted management consultant, argued that undergraduate education for business should consist of a double major: a rigorous humanities program *combined with* a scientific discipline. Examples would be a combination of classics and computer science, or mechanical engineering and medieval history. I summarized his ideas here.

    Dr Hammer did not feel that undergraduate business programs were worthwhile.

  2. “Only” 39% of CEO’s have engineering, science, or math degrees?

    I seriously doubt that 39% of degrees are S-E, so that probably means that those degrees are overrepresented in the CEO office.

    I couldn’t find direct numbers for the percentage, but this NSF report lists 12% of graduates in S-E jobs, so I’m guessing that the percentage of degrees is close to that. Do the math.

  3. Chartermom says:

    The Payscale Salary information (and the WalletPop article looks like it might be based on the same information) needs to be taken in context — it limited it’s analysis to only those whose terminal degree was a bachelor’s. It also only includes individuals who receive a salary — no contractors, freelancers or small business owners. Given that it makes a lot of sense that the top earning degrees were generally engineering and math degrees — those skills are very marketable with “only” a bachelor’s. The individuals who want to continue to “do” engineering can focus on self-education and work-related education. There also was probably less pressure to get a graduate degree to get ahead. My experience with working with engineers and technical types is that what mattered was how good an engineer/techie you were — where you went to school and for how long just weren’t that important. Those that aspire for more management related work typically earn an MBA and would fall off of this survey.

    As economics stood out as a degree that did well but doesn’t qualify as a tech or science degree, I was curious as to how economics majors with “only” a bachelor’s earned the big bucks. Turned out two fo the more popular jobs were financial advisor and consulting types — likely commission and bonus driven. Other jobs held be economics majors tended to be more in line with those held by business management majors.

    The comparison for mid-career business and liberal arts majors probably understates the salaries of each as both those degrees generally result in the more ambitious obtaining a graduate degree and graduate degrees being almost a requirement (read any job posting and see a grad degree listed as a preference) for almost any job above entry. For many liberal arts majors a graduate degree is an entry level requirement for a job in the major field. The other possibility for the more ambitious is to become a small business owner. In either case a large number of the holders of those degrees fall off this survey.

    My net on this is that if you want a degree that pays well and doesn’t require you to get a graduate degree — engineering and science are good choices.

  4. Tom West says:

    In the end, if you want to end up a senior exec, I’d imagine being a *salesman* is the important qualification, not education. First for climbing the ladder, and finally because rising to the very top requires being able to sell yourself.

    My only dismay as I grow older is learning how little being able to “do” matters, and how much being able to “sell” matters.

  5. Steve Jobs is right. Being able to make something is one thing, it’s even more important to know what to make and how to positively impact humanity. While Gates is successful, you can tell Windows was designed by someone who was a technician first and an artist second. The beauty of Apple has been it’s design elegance. Form/function. That takes more than simply technical skill, that takes an understanding of how people think, what inspires them, what motivates them. Of course, there’s room for both types of majors in the business world, however, you can tell the major difference between Apple and MS, Jobs and Gates — Apple makes people want to stand up and cheer for new products, Microsoft makes people curious about who they copied. I don’t think Microsoft’s leadership has an innovative bone in their body. Their last original product was MS DOS and even that was purchased from someone else.You don’t often see user passion with Microsoft — probably because the company is/was led by an engineer/tech guy with very little knowledge of psychology or human motivation.

  6. Why do you think selling is different from doing?

  7. Selling *is* doing, because business involves the coordinated actions of large numbers of people–employees, customers, suppliers, investors or superior executives–and we don’t have the power to have them shot or send them to the salt mines, so they need to be convinced to do things.

    There are very few careers in which people would not benefit from improving their persuasive skills, yet far too many individuals can’t give a decent presentation or write a solid analysis and recommendation for action. College does not generally appear to help that much: some MBA programs are apparently finding it necessary to give writing classes to people who already have undergraduate degrees from supposedly-reputable colleges.

    *Rhetoric* was once considered a fundamental part of a liberal arts education, and so it should be again.