The current debate about the usefulness of a liberal arts education isn’t actually all that new (although perhaps it’s reached a newly frenzied pitch given the record unemployment among recent college graduates). Just think back to the classic late-1960s comedy The Graduate, a coming-of-age-tale of a guy who’s recently finished college and has no idea what to do with his life.
In one of the most quoted scenes from American cinema, he’s advised by his parents’ friend to pursue the hottest technology of the day: Plastics. "There’s a great future in plastics," he’s told. "Think about it."
So what about the liberal arts student of today? What’s her ticket for success?
According to Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt--who was reminded of that classic film scene at an event promoting his book The New Digital Age at the Standard Hotel in New York--it’s not software, computers, or apps.
"Health care is the plastics of today," Schmidt declared.
According to Schmidt, the savvy grad ought to insert himself into that industry, which provides jobs to people with a variety of different skill-sets and is in the process of being disrupted by new technologies putting more information in the hands of consumers, insurance reform, and bioengineering.
The world’s 138th richest person is, of course, not the first to emphasize health care as the lynchpin to the U.S. economy. But his co-author, Jared Cohen, offered slightly different advice to college students who aren’t about to graduate with a BS in computer science: "The biggest mistake that young graduates can make is not realizing that they know more about technology than the people they’re working for," he said.
Children of the 1990s, the first generation of so-called "digital natives" have an inherent knack for technology, according to Cohen, that older people simply don’t have. It’s their "comparative advantage," Cohen said.
So even if you majored in French studies, perhaps there’s a hope even for you. Even two guys running Google seem to think so.