Why you can bank on the humanities to launch a City career

Philosophers have been making a killing in financial services since Thales of Miletus used options to corner the ancient Greek market for olive oil. So it is fantastic news to see several big banks continuing to recognise how much humanities graduates have to contribute in the twenty-first century: nearly half of the intake at Barclays is set to have an arts background.

Today’s news confirms the results of a study from Oxford University released in July, which showed the increasing contribution of humanities graduates from the university to the financial sector, and other key City professions such as law, from 1960 through to 1980.

According to the Oxford report, finance, management and marketing absorbed almost one third of humanities graduates over the period, with the number of philosophy and history graduates in finance beginning a precipitous rise just as the sector’s contribution to GDP began to skyrocket in the mid-1970s. The proportion of graduates in those fields going into finance went from just six per cent to over 20 per cent. That increase was often at a rate that remained significantly above the national trend for decades.

The study also interviewed some of those who had found a natural path from the humanities into the Square Mile – in one case, a scholar of classical languages who became a banker before taking early retirement when his firm was bought out. He then returned to his alma mater to complete a doctorate and teach.

The core humanities skills singled out were succinct and persuasive communication coupled with the capacity for critical analysis and synthesis. Arts courses may not provide immediately applicable financial knowledge, but the interviewees agreed that they had given them the ability to tackle new problems and tasks, assess risks, take due account of ethical issues and conduct negotiations. These courses prepared individuals who could generate new and workable ideas, and manage others who had such ideas. Their studies were a grounding on which effective leadership could be built.

It is tempting in education – and especially for practical business minds – to point to immediately useful vocational skills and demand that these be taught in order to improve the nation’s economic outcomes. Yet it is not so simple.

The flexibility, character and initiative necessary for a long and varied career are not well-served by learning a narrow suite of skills, even one that might be of immediate value on graduation. Short-term utility must not blind us to how much the humanities still have to offer in the long run.

This isn’t to talk down the boost to economics or key subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths. The classical liberal education tradition at its best has always been a marriage of the two: teaching the precise use of language for logical analysis and peaceful persuasion; developing skill with numbers as a means to better comprehend the nature of reality. The door to Plato’s Academy is supposed to have carried a warning sign: “if you don’t know geometry, you can’t come in”.

Happily, a mini-revival in the tradition of a well-rounded education is underway in UK universities, with King’s College London, Exeter, UCL and Winchester all creating liberal arts courses. There’s even a dedicated London liberal arts college in preparation called Benedictus.

Perhaps it is precisely because a City career calls on the full human range of linguistic, numerical and leadership skills that it offers fertile soil for the well-educated generalist. A wider perspective is sure to have its uses in today’s post-crisis landscape.

First published: City A.M., 16/8/13

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Filed under Business, Human nature, Liberal education

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