Speaking on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, David Rubenstein reportedly criticized policy initiatives that push students to orient themselves toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The real scarcity, he apparently asserted, is in problem solving and critical thinking skills — both of which may be gleaned from the study of humanities, and which over time would yield lucrative rewards. Hence the Rubenstein Hypothesis of Return on Education: “H = MC. Humanities equals more cash.”
Now I have my doubts as to the veracity of this hypothesis. I suspect the odds of a humanities student becoming an executive on Wall Street—the example he purportedly mentioned — are exponentially higher for those who attend an Ivy League university, or one of a handful of other target schools (e.g., Duke, Georgetown, Stanford). I also suspect that humanities students are likely to earn more cash if they polish off their education with a professional degree.
But I also think he’s on to something.
It just so happened that the night before reading Rubenstein’s quote, I finished Carroll Quigley’s massive tome Tragedy and Hope.
The student who ranks first in his class may be genuinely brilliant or he may be a compulsive worker or the instrument of domineering parents’ ambitions or a conformist or a self-centered careerist who has shrewdly calculated his teachers’ prejudices and expectations and discovered how to regurgitate efficiently what they want. Or he may have focused narrowly on grade-getting as compensation for his inadequacies in other areas, because he lacks other interests or talents or lacks passion and warmth or normal healthy instincts or is afraid of life. The top high school student is often, frankly, a pretty dull and bloodless, or peculiar fellow. The adolescent with wide-ranging curiosity and stubborn independence, with a vivid imagination and desire to explore fascinating bypaths, to follow his own interests, to contemplate, to read the unrequired books, the boy filled with sheer love of life and exuberance, may well seem to his teachers troublesome, undisciplined, a rebel, may not conform to their stereotype, and may not get the top grades and the highest rank in class. He may not even score at the highest level in the standard multiple choice admissions tests, which may well reward the glib, facile mind at the expense of the questioning, independent, or slower but more powerful, more subtle, and more interesting and original mind.
As quoted in Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time (1966), pg. 1274.
In my own naked self interest, I am hopeful that Rubenstein’s hypothesis holds in the real world. And as a citizen, I would tend to prefer leaders with an appreciation for the institutions and ideas that have shaped humanity’s journey over technocrats quick to break a few eggs in pursuit of a scientific truth.
However, even if the study of Aristotle, Thucydides and Machiavelli leads us not to larger withdrawals from ATMs, education in the humanities can offer rewards perhaps more enriching, but certainly more enduring.