There is a common sentiment among proponents of the liberal arts (I happen to be one of them) that there is a dangerous focus upon over-specialization today that puts people at risk. The argument usually sounds something like this. If you go to technical college and get a degree in a very specialized area or you go to a one-year computer programming boot camp instead of getting a B.S. in computer science, you might be better off in the short-term, but you also put yourself at risk. What happens when your area of specialized training becomes obsolete? I wrote about this recently, but I’d like to approach it from a slightly different angle in this article.
First, there is a valid concern in this critique. I meet people who worked in very specialized factory jobs, for example, and when the industry changed, that job disappeared and the person got laid off. That happens around the world every day. Jobs come and go. Needed tasks appear and, over time, become less necessary due to advancements in technology, new business processes and plenty of other factors.
Yet, I need to distinguish between the scenarios that I described above and many of the other specializations that happen through technical college, college, non-credit certifications, and the like. Many specializations today are in areas where knowledge is changing quite often. Even if you get the formal training upfront, you usually can’t just lean on that original training forever. You continue to learn and develop to stay current. That is more important in some jobs than others, but this is even (maybe even especially) important in a realm like sales.
Sales people are often engaged in ongoing training about not just how to sell, but also staying informed about their product(s), the changing market, research about their customers, new software used on the job, changes in financial options for customers, and more. How long is a car salesman going to last if she doesn’t build strong communication skills, stay up on her portfolio of products and those of the competition, build new knowledge about how to navigate the databases, and constantly learn how to take advantage of new communication technologies? These are part of working in that arena. Yet, I’ve met plenty of people who started selling when the task required far fewer of these elements. Some people stayed up with the times and made the transition. Others did not.
Here is another important note with something like sales. There are plenty of transferable skills in a domain like this. Sales is not just sales. In fact, there is a wonderful “liberal arts” element to many great sales people. There is critical thinking. There are problem-solving skills, communication skills, knowledge of psychology and the human experience, quantitative skills, and some even leverage their cultural and other knowledge to connect with or build rapport with a customer. Yes, I’ve talked Ayn Rand and Heidegger with a car sales person before. Haven’t you?
This is a field that can be and has been disrupted by technology. Salespeople had to switch the nature of their work or retool altogether. Yet, if you have the sort of skills that I just described in the last paragraph (including a lifelong learning mindset), you have a good chance of landing on your feet. These are valued traits in the workplace and communities. As I’ve written before, liberal arts colleges don’t have a monopoly on the concept of the liberal arts.
Does This Apply in Other Fields?
Some might argue that sales is not the sort of specialized training that they are referencing. After all, plenty of liberal arts college graduates end up in sales. They do so without any specialized training in sales and can do quite well. That is different than other fields that require much more specialized training…like perhaps something in a medical field.
The Medical Field
Let’s explore that one a bit more, which brings me to the title of the article. Everyone working in a medical field today is specialized to some extent. In fact, from one perspective, isn’t medical school specialized training? Yes, you finish with some sort of specialization but the study of medicine itself is specialized and distinct from a myriad of other jobs in healthcare. Of course, I don’t hear too many people arguing that this specialized training will become obsolete soon (Although, that is a possibility. There are rich conversations about the impact of developments like telehealth, personalized medicine, health informatics and big data, advancements in self-care, robots in healthcare, along with leveraging more non-MD healthcare workers and using a smaller people of MDs.).
I understand that the specialized training associated with being an MD is different than the specialized training associated with becoming a plumber. Yet, I see plenty of similarities as well. Both entail constant technical changes and advancements. Both require staying current. Both require additional emotional and social skills beyond the specialized training to excel. Both benefit from strong character and convictions. In addition, granted that you paid attention to these other elements, both provide an ability to transfer into new and often very different fields.
Learn and Unlearn
Toffler wrote this and said it often. The educated of our age are those who have a keen ability to learn and unlearn. Specialization is a reality for many jobs. It is not about avoiding specialized training. We need that to get so many jobs done and done well. Yet, hardly anybody has a job protected from change in the modern world. That is why I am others talk and write about the importance of non-cognitive skills, learning how to learn, and the importance of developing the capacity for self-directed learning. These are just as important in specialized training as anywhere else.
Just Another Defense of the Liberal Arts?
Isn’t this just another defense of the liberal arts? As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I see great value in the liberal arts. It is just that many today seem to be setting up a strawman when they contrast specialized training with the values of a liberal arts education. They are not mutually exclusive. There is not one sacred pathway to developing these values and the associated mindsets, knowledge, and skills. Technical schools might not be liberal arts schools in the modern sense, but it doesn’t mean that that can’t nurture critical thinking, problem solving, learning how to learn, any many other traits that some associate with the liberal arts, including elements like an appreciation for culture and the arts (which was a point in my last article on this subject).
What About for Your Own Kids?
One critique of my past writing about these ideas, especially the concept of multiple pathways (some of which might not include college) is that this is the sort of thing elitists say is good for other people’s children but not their own. They talk about the merit of technical training and how a traditional liberal arts college experience isn’t essential, but then they send their kids to the best liberal arts schools in the nation. Instead, such critics often argue that our goal should be to send as many people as possible to college.
Yet, isn’t that forcing a preferred pathway on everyone else? Doesn’t that perpetuate the monopoly on access to certain types of jobs that people without college degrees could do exceedingly well? I argue that the learning is and should be seen as more important than the pathway. In fact, when we look at the need for learning across the lifespan, the person who gets this is at a huge advantage.