“Useless” Liberal Arts Degrees Less Useless Than Previously Thought!

Here’s good news for those of us who went to small liberal arts colleges or who went to bigger schools but majored in things like Philosophy and gave our parents ulcers: turns out, according to a long report in Forbes, the lucrative and growing world of Tech is finding a use for us after all.

Consider what’s unique and appealing about Slack, the uber-successful online messaging software start-up that’s taken over:

much of it is minted by one of Slack’s 180 employees, Anna Pickard, the 38-year-old editorial director. She earned a theater degree from Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University before discovering that she hated the constant snubs of auditions that didn’t work out. After dabbling in blogging, videogame writing and cat impersonations, she found her way into tech, where she cooks up zany replies to users who type in “I love you, Slackbot.” It’s her mission, Pickard explains, “to provide users with extra bits of surprise and delight.” The pay is good; the stock options, even better.

What kind of boss hires a thwarted actress for a business-to-business software startup? Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s 42-year-old cofounder and CEO, whose estimated double-digit stake in the company could be worth $300 million or more. He’s the proud holder of an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science.

The history of science! I kind of love that. I almost got a Master’s degree from NYU in “Humanities and Social Thought” before I came to my senses and realized any program that could pretend to make me a master of humanities AND social thought in only two years had to be run by P.T. Barnum. The history of science is, I guess, somewhat more manageable.

Sidebar: Looking up P.T. Barnum brought me to his original 1891 obituary in the New York Times, headlined “Great Showman Dead,” and it is 110% pure delight. His father, Philo, is described as “a tailor, a farmer, at times a tavern keeper, and ever on the lookout to turn a quick penny by any honorable means.” Feel free to appropriate that for your Twitter bios.

P.T. himself, or Phineas, as he was then known, was shrewd from his earliest days:

He was also at a remarkably early age fully aware of the value of money. He never was known to squander or foolishly spend a penny. When he was six years old he had saved coppers enough to exchange for a silver dollar. This he “turned” as rapidly as he could with safety, and by peddling home-made molasses candy, gingerbread, and at times a species of liquor made by himself and called cherry rum, he had accumulated when he was not quite twelve years of age a sum sufficient to buy and pay for a sheep and a calf. Indeed, to use an expression subsequently employed by him when relating these early experiences, he was rapidly becoming a small Croesus, when his father very kindly gave him permission to buy his own clothing with his own money. Of course, this permission materially reduced his little store.

Why has no one made a movie of this guy’s life? Never mind, don’t answer that, I’m starting on the screenplay right now. /sidebar

The point is that humanities types are crossing into the Tech world with good and lucrative results all around.

Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger. Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers–and make progress seem pleasant. …

In fact, people without a tech degree may already be benefiting the most from tech’s boom.

Tell that to your grandpa the next time he grouses about your having majored in English. Just be prepared to also have to explain to him why you’re not, right now, getting on a bus and heading out to Silicon Valley.

This story is part of our College Month series.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.