Intelligence

Why economists need English majors

Kerry Mullen

Kerry Mullen

Account Manager

The Washington Post published an article recently that I’ve been waiting to read for the better part of a decade. World-renowned economist Robert Shiller believes the world needs more English majors. 

You might be thinking: Has the man who brought us the Case-Shiller Index gone soft in his old age? Is he petitioning for more raw, beating hearts in this world? Dreamers with a penchant for Hemingway but prose like Fitzgerald? 

Not quite. Although you can probably guess where I stand on the issue.

No, Shiller believes finance—and the world economy itself—is in desperate need of financial storytellers. With more than a 25% decline in students majoring in English since the ‘08 crash, we’re facing the prospect of a shortage, you see. A scarcity of skilled writers who can decode the inner workings of market movements and translate it all to the masses. A deficit of gifted communicators who can responsibly control and deliver information to the underbanked or to the new professional saddled with student debt. 

For a moment, the Washington Post headline placed English majors and storytellers in the spotlight, granting them their (long overdue and well-deserved) 15-minutes of fame. And, this English major turned financial storyteller is just about jumping up and down.

It’s not every day a national newspaper writes an Op-Ed in defense of the bookworms and the poets. To say English majors get a bad rap is an understatement. Comedian John Mulaney famously uses his degree as a punchline in a skit on tuition costs. Inciting laughs (present company included) with his line: “I paid $120,000…to accept a four-year degree in a language I already spoke.” That’s not the first time we’ve heard that one, Kid Gorgeous.  

No economist worth his salt shows up to a fight without data. And both Shiller and reporter Heather Long have it in spades. Beyond the societal value of storytelling, the data shows: English majors often get jobs earlier than their computer science and engineering counterparts. (Let’s hear it for the readers). And their salaries quickly climb to meet their peers in math and science by mid-career. (Get that money!!)

As much as I selfishly want to celebrate only the long-lambasted English majors, the truth is, we can’t accept all of the credit. I firmly believe the rise of the liberal arts education is setting up graduates across all disciplines to be stronger storytellers. And, perhaps more importantly, it’s setting up students to think critically, to challenge the stories they’re being told in the political realm as much as the economic realm. 

That’s the dream, right? The promise of a liberal arts education is creating a cohort of independent thinkers, people who disrupt the status quo and aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. 

Shiller’s words celebrate the potential good elements of controlling and shaping a story, but his words are also reminiscent of the dangers hidden in our daily grind. He argues the stories created leading up to the market crash exacerbated conditions and contributed to real families landing themselves in a financial bind. Stories that insisted the American dream was accessible to anyone but overlooked warning signals of risky mortgages and untenable interest payments. 

We live in a country with no formal financial literacy education, a knowledge gap we pay $280 billion for every year. The reality is, Americans are learning the ropes of the financial system through personal trial and error, and the stories that journalists and financial brands tell. If that doesn’t scare you, it should. 

I agree with Shiller, stories matter. But, listening critically and parsing out fact from embellishment matters just as much. No matter how diligent and how careful the majority of the country’s financial storytellers are, risky financial offerings will always be a part of the narrative. I hope the financial crisis made us all a touch more skeptical and a bit savvier. And when I do sit down, make my English professors proud, and read Shiller’s full book, I suspect I’ll find he agrees with me too.

My fellow financial storytellers: Wield your power wisely. The responsibility of shaping how the public understands the likelihood of a Recession or whether an investment is wise should weigh heavily on your conscience. 

It’s our job to write the stories: let’s make them worth reading.

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