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Long-Run in a Short-Run World

At the new student convocation each year, we acknowledge that the content presented to students in any given year will be replaced by new understanding in later years. Hence, if they are to prepare themselves for the long life ahead they need to learn how to self-teach. Our goal is not to prep them for their first job, but to prepare them for a life.

There is currently a large mismatch between much public discourse about higher education and the discussions within universities about their roles in the society. The public discourse is influenced by legislatures and elected government officials intervening in university organization, the lack of economic rewards of various college majors, and the lack of immediate applicability of various research products. The internal discussions within universities focus on supporting faculty scholarship, refreshing curricula to reflect the synthesis of various knowledge domains, innovating in pedagogical approaches using new technologies, and aligning research programs to pressing global problems. In an important way, external vs. internal discussions clash on short-run and long-run perspectives.

Universities are one of the few institutions in a society whose sole function is the ongoing search for truth. “Truth” refers to the discovery of the mechanisms underlying the natural world, the understanding of social and psychological influences on human behavior and organization, and the creation of new text, objects, and performances that unlock insights into humanity. These are all unceasing quests. The destination is never fully reached. Each development builds on prior ones. While the goal is to get closer to the truth, we are fully aware that it may fully be revealed.

The short-run, long-run conflict might be most obvious in external discussions of the arts and humanities. Some politicians deride various majors. Several institutions are planning to cut whole departments or programs. First-job income level appears to be the single most important criterion of evaluation. But from the university perspective, colleges, especially liberal arts institutions, are more than just prep schools for the first job.

In several studies, the skills that employers value from humanities graduates have been found to include the ability to communicate both in oral and written presentation, to synthesize complex information, to critically assess alternatives interpretations; to creatively solve problems, and to feel genuine empathy for others. Many of these are capacities are indirect effects of the scholarly methods of the humanities, probably derived from deep reading, entertaining different interpretations of the texts and objects, and production of text offering persuasive arguments.

But how does this translate into income? Here, too, the short-run, long-run contrast is huge. One report, about liberal arts undergraduate experiences, defines the “return on investment” as a function of the net price of college compared to post-graduation earnings. In the first ten years after graduation, graduates of liberal arts colleges do indeed earn less than those from other schools (relative to their total education costs). However, over a forty year period after graduation, they make more. Of course, there remain differences among majors in a liberal arts in lifetime earnings, but the short-run focus seems to ignore the value of liberal education’s expose students from all majors to the ways of thinking of the arts and humanities. That is, in the long-run the society rewards the capacities that result from the rigor of the arts and humanities. It is an easy hypothesis that these skills are those that make for a good manager and strategic leader. These are jobs that require both the skills of the first job and the skills that are less job specific, but important for the productivity of groups.

Why is long-run perspectives appropriate in higher education? Current entering students are likely to live to be over 100 years. They will experience not just multiple jobs, but multiple careers, as societal and technological change disrupt occupational families. They will need to retool. The critical thinking and synthesis-making capacities inherent in the humanities can facilitate that retooling.

4 thoughts on “Long-Run in a Short-Run World

  1. This post resonates deeply with my beliefs about the true essence and purpose of higher education. The emphasis on universities as institutions dedicated to the unending quest for truth is both profound and timely. In an era where immediate gratification and short-term gains often overshadow long-term vision, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the enduring value of a holistic education. The arts and humanities, in particular, equip students with skills that transcend the confines of specific job roles and industries. As the post rightly points out, the ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and empathize genuinely are invaluable in any era, and even more so in our rapidly changing world. The distinction between short-run and long-run perspectives is crucial, and I’m glad to see it highlighted here. We must champion the idea that education is not just about immediate job readiness but about preparing individuals for a lifetime of adaptability, understanding, and meaningful contribution. Thank you for this insightful reflection on the true purpose and value of higher education.

    • Interesting. It reminds me of Bill. Clinton’s key campaign phrase “ future preference “ which was taught to him at Georgetown by Professor Quigley . Basically saying that for cultures to survive they must base their policies and values on future preference ,ie planning for future generations and not just immediate gratification.

  2. As a GU faculty member in the social sciences, I deeply appreciate your analysis of the importance of the humanities. In the classroom, we focus on developing these types of “skills” and making students aware that these indeed are “skills” for life and careers. You clearly articulate the misguided approach of many politicians (and societal trends that follow their rhetoric) to liberal arts education. And your framing of the issue and use of data make the case for the importance of this type of education, alongside other ways of learning and skills. In appreciation for taking this issue on today in our first week of classes …. I will share it with my students.

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