File under “weird congruences”: the market for English professors collapsed with the investment banks. Two secondary markets staffed by Ivy League liberal arts high-achievers whose accomplishments looked great on paper but didn’t necessarily really know how to make anything. (NB: I don’t necessarily believe this, but let’s entertain it as an idea.)
Here’s Caleb Crain:
Every historical period has its predominant economic metaphors, and they seep into its culture. Not long ago, I had coffee with an undergraduate who reported that he had just read Derrida and Lacan on Poe and was excited by the idea that criticism might be the new literature. Twenty years ago, when I read Derrida and Lacan on Poe, my professors teased me the same exciting possibility. It occurs to me now that the idea is about as old as, and has certain structural parallels to, the notion that finance is the new manufacturing. Like criticism over literature, finance traditionally supervised manufacturing yet was thought to be parasitic upon it and less “creative” than it. And then at some moment, often specified on Michael Lewis’s authority as the 1980s, finance began to have the reputation of requiring more intellectual acumen than manufacturing and to attract the brighter and more modish talents. Similarly (though hard numbers are very hard to come by), academic criticism started to pay better than the creation of literature—certainly it offered more stability and social prestige. For a young American to ignore the economic signaling and go into manufacturing or literature rather than finance or criticism, he would have to be either idealist or dunderheaded.
And here’s Ezra Klein, interviewing a friend from Harvard:
What did you study at Harvard?
I focused on history and government and political philosophy.
And why did Goldman Sachs think that would be good training for investment banking?
Why Goldman thought I’d be good for investment banking is a very fair question. There are a lot of Harvard people at Goldman and they’ve put a lot of effort into recruiting from the school. They really try to attract liberal arts backgrounds. They say this stuff isn’t so complicated, that you’ll pick it up as you go along, that it’s all about teamwork, that they have training programs. That being said, it would be very hard to get a full-time job there without a previous summer internship.
How did you end up going to Goldman, though? Presumably, as a social sciences major, you hadn’t meant to head into the financial sector.
Investment banking was never something I thought I wanted to do. But the recruiting culture at Harvard is extremely powerful. In the midst of anxiety and trying to find a job at the end of college, the recruiters are really in your face, and they make it very easy. One thing is the internship program. It’s your junior year, it’s January or February, and you interview for internships. If all goes well, it’s sort of a summer-long interview. And if that goes well, you have an offer by September of your senior year, and that’s very appealing. It makes your senior year more relaxed, you can focus on your thesis, you can drink more. You just don’t have to worry about getting a job.
And separate from that, I think it’s about squelching anxiety in general. It checks the job box. And it’s a low-risk opportunity. It’s a two-year program with a great salary and the promise to get these skills that should be able to transfer to a variety of other areas. The idea is that once you pass the test at Goldman, you can do anything. You learn Excel, you learn valuation, you learn how to survive intense hours and a high-pressure environment. So it seems like a good way to launch your career. That’s very appealing for those of us at Harvard who were not in pre-professional majors.
It all torques the whole what-are-you-going-to-do-with-your-degree question in a new, more sinister direction. Let’s say you’re an Ivy League English major. Ten-to-twenty years ago, you would have gone to work in academia, publishing, or I-banking. (Maybe, maybe, the nonprofit sector — as Klein’s interviewee points out, Teach for America recruiters play on Ivy Leaguers’ anxieties in much the same way the Goldman recruiters did.)
Crain adds a weird allegory about islanders trading shells, which is too complex to summarize here, but comes off weirdly like a story about student-loan debt. Or maybe that’s just me.