Good morning. I’d love to have a conversation with you over coffee this morning, but I guess this blog post will have to do.
I was biased in favor of students of the liberal arts as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even earlier, I suspect my favoritism guided my perception of the world around me; and the people in it. A couple of recent email exchanges with a woman I hired back then triggered that recollection; that memory that I was inclined toward hiring people whose educational background appealed to me. It wasn’t just their educational background, of course. Education was simply a bit of evidence, often unreliable, that their worldviews and their personalities were good fits with mine.
The emails in question began with one I sent, asking my former employee (who now lives in Iowa) for her perspective on a town in that state. Something about her response and our subsequent interchanges triggered my memory. I remembered using educational backgrounds, specifically degrees in English, as a screening tool when selecting prospective interviewees. And I remember how much better those interviewees who had that characteristic seemed to fit with my personality than did others who were just as well educated in other fields or were otherwise talented and experienced. I hired the woman I recently asked for advice as much for her personality and intellect as for my confidence that she possessed the necessary editorial and writing capabilities. I hired others on the basis of similar feelings of confidence about how well they fit.
Since then, I’ve come to realize degrees simply were screening tools. And, as I said, they were often unreliable tools. But I used them in the absence of interviewing experience. Over time, my interviewing skills evolved so that I was able to discard educational attainment as evidence of intellectual depth. I discovered that life experience, intellectual curiosity, and raw intelligence were much better predictors of both job performance and personality fit. Formal education, it turned out, did not matter much. “Uneducated” people often had far deeper intellectual capacity and richer mental breadth than their educated counterparts. Gradually, over time, I began hiring “English majors” who had never been to college but who were far more intelligent and much more interesting that mass-produced educational clones.
I admitted, in my introductory paragraph, my bias toward “students of the liberal arts.” I did not say “graduates with liberal arts degrees.” Even though I still use degrees as potential clues about intellect, I put less faith in formal education than in knowledge. There’s a widening gulf between people who are knowledgeable and those who possess formal education. The latter too often are lacking in the former. Still, liberal arts degrees served as sometimes-reliable yardsticks.
The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.
~ Dorothy Parker ~
The woman with whom I recently communicated was an excellent employee and a friend. Though it has been many years since we might have considered one another friends, we stay in touch occasionally and I still hold her opinions in high regard. And it was her degree, back then, that got her in the door. Similarly, it was another interviewee’s Master of Arts degree in English that prompted me to interview her. There have been others. I favored liberal arts majors to business majors and people who majored in more technical fields. When interviewees had no formal degrees I could use as convenience screens, I explored their interests in literature and social issues; and their facility with language.
So, what’s the purpose of all this? No purpose, really. Only a randomly-triggered memory that unearthed a bias about my own biases. I have dozens of them; maybe even more.
I both admire it and am skeptical of its value. I’ve still not quite resolved that ambivalence. On the one hand, my late wife’s Ph.D. was testament to both her extraordinary intellect and her consuming dedication to achieving a major goal. But I’ve met other people whose Ph.D. degrees masked their unyielding stupidity. Yet I’ve met incredibly intelligent people who did not finish high school, much less go on to obtain impressive terminal degrees. Two quotations address at least part of my ambivalence about formal education.
I didn’t get a high school diploma. I really didn’t have much of an education, which left me open to educating myself throughout my life, without the limitations on intellectual curiosity a formal education can impose. I followed what interested me.
~ Elayne Boosler ~
And this one that shows contempt for formal education, at least as practiced in his day.
It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.
~ Albert Einstein ~