Liberal Arts and Transfer

In a Moneybox post I mostly agree with, Matt Yglesias says this:

In order to do well in courses on 19th Century British Literature or Social Anthropology or Philosophy or American History in a properly running American college, what you need to do is get pretty good at reading and writing documents in the English language…. [And] If you can compose an email that’s 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you’re going to get ahead in a wide range of fields. Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who’s pretty good at his job and a person who’s able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans. Everyone knows that a kid growing up in rural India is obtaining valuable skills if he gets better at English, but this is equally true for a kid growing up in Indiana.

To which I would say, yes – but there is not as much transfer in that area as you might think. In many ways, academic writing trains one in habits that have to be unlearned in a business environment (as a former language and linguistics grad student I can attest to this). The quality of business writing among faculty, who have practiced writing more intensely than most, is not any better than that in the general population.

Liberal Arts *can* be very useful to business, but it has to be taught for transfer, in an integrative way.  It requires getting beyond the term paper conception of writing and into something less formal but more regular. And maybe more varied — again, transfer (for many students) requires practice across multiple domains with explicit explanation of how the domains relate. The kid at the top of your class is going to move from Milton to competitive analysis reports just fine, but the kids in the middle need guidance.

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