Investing in an Enduring Education
One of the pleasures of having grandchildren is telling stories about our past.
With every retelling, the walk to school gets a little longer, the chores a little harder and, as technology advances, the contrasts a little more extreme. No, we didn’t have smart phones or tablets. Alexa and Siri didn’t exist; we used encyclopedias, and the library had books. We played games not on an Xbox or a tablet, but by using our imaginations.
As I consider the young people in my life, I know that in some ways, my generation had it easier. We didn’t go back to school until after Labor Day and, more important, we received a broad education free from the distractions of social media and most other forms of technology.
Does social media and all the other tech available to even very young children now help or hinder them in building these skills? Would I better express myself here with this? Do elected officials and even the President of the United States best express themselves in 140 characters? To my mind, the answer to all these questions is a resounding no.
The research firm 13D posed just that question the other day, asking in a note to clients: “What world do I educate my children for?” and suggesting that, “One way forward – perhaps the only way – is to concentrate on what humans do best: interpersonal skills, team building, empathy.” The goal is to be able to think critically or to, as 13D put it, “If the world looks right, look left.”
Interestingly, a classical education may be just the ticket to success in a high-tech world, as prospective white collar, blue collar, and even young, no-collar workers who hope to follow Mark Zuckerberg’s keystrokes prepare for job markets in which change is accelerating.
The current focus on the return on investment, or ROI, of an education (measuring lifetime earnings with and without a degree) certainly seems misguided, as well as dispiriting, when we consider both the rapidly changing marketplace and the opportunity cost. While we can all appreciate the financial pressures many young students face, how should we value, say, a multimedia or business technology course when the content is likely to be obsolete in just a few years? And how do we value a semester studying Shakespeare or religions or ethics?
I wondered just that when interviewing a young graduate. She was quite proud of the fact that she had completed her degree in just two-and-a-half years, by taking on heavy class loads through the summers as well as the academic year; a strategy that she volunteered was driven by a sense of time efficiency rather than by tuition and other cost considerations. I thought to myself that it was a shame, as she had missed some important aspects of a college education. Although she could master the technical skills required to be a wealth manager, I had to wonder if she would take the time – or even had the skills – to build enduring relationships with our clients.
Forty-eight years after my own graduation, I still enjoy participating in university life as a member of my alma mater’s board, and engaging with professors and students, as well as the young people starting their careers at Evercore after degrees at top universities around the world. It goes without saying that all of them are comfortable working with technology. But so am I and many of my peers; it’s a skill that can be learned and maintained in the service of a relationship business where the goal is to add value by working with technology, not to compete at the robot’s level.
Even at the extreme heights of technology success, there is plenty of evidence of broader perspectives. Steve Jobs studied poetry and, famously, calligraphy, in addition to computer science at Harvard. Bill Gates studied law, and Mr. Zuckerberg studied psychology. (Yes, these particular gentlemen all dropped out, but they continued to pursue a broad education, as evidenced by Mr. Gates’ annual book list and Mr. Zuckerberg’s annual self-improvement projects.)
My grandchildren still have years before they need to make any decisions about college. Wherever they choose to go, I hope they look for institutions that help them think, teach them leadership skills, and imbue them with a sense of both history and humanity. And I hope that in the interim, they continue to enjoy their summers spent at camp, putting aside their computer games and smart phones until after Labor Day and beyond.
Jeff Maurer is the CEO of Evercore Wealth Management and the Chairman of Evercore Trust Company, N.A. He can be contacted at email@example.com.