This is the first in a series of opinion pieces about ways to begin reimagining education in the 21st and 22nd centuries. The purpose of this exercise is to jog the minds of those reading, and to begin launching some questions for further study and review. These essays are the general reflections of an alumnus of this college and this newspaper. They, however, remain my views and mine alone. In some cases, the views offered in this series likely differ from policy I would enact if I myself were writing the rules. That seems natural to me. The desire here is for spirited inquiry, discussion, and debate.
I propose that Swarthmore College should incorporate rigorous financial education into its curriculum. By this I mean that all students upon graduating from Swarthmore should be required to have a mastery of the basics of economic reasoning: how to read a balance sheet, how to think about investments, and how to evaluate the costs and benefits of policy proposals. This, in my view, could be accomplished by requiring one good course on the subject, which students could opt-out of by passing a test, much like they do for their language or swimming requirements.
You may balk at this proposal. It is my hope in this essay to persuade you of its necessity.
It may seem obvious that an institution which emphasizes civic engagement ought to ensure its graduates know how money works. After all, it is pretty difficult to reason about why things are, or how things might be, in modern civil society without understanding costs, investments, and capital markets.
The classic retort to the proposal of taking financial education seriously at a place like Swarthmore is that financial education is ‘vocational’ in nature, and therefore not in line with the college’s mission of Liberal Learning (where the “liberal” does not connote the political sense of the word, but the classical sense, more closely meaning “free inquiry”).
To understand why financial education is not built into the backbone of Swarthmore’s ethos, despite its utility and place in the canon of historical knowledge, it is worth taking a tour through the college’s history. What are the liberal arts, really? And what do people think of them as?
What are the Liberal Arts?
At the risk of being reductive, let me say simply that the Swarthmore model of education derived from the Oxford tutorial system, was influenced strongly by the German and then American research university, and finally was distorted by a series of changes in requirements and broader trends across academia as a whole. Such distortions are the topic of a further essay, but for now it should suffice to propose that all curricula require revisiting after a certain period of time. Why do we make the choices we do? And why not make them differently?
Swarthmore developed around the idea that there ought to exist research for the sake of research. One theory underpinning Liberal Learning is that there exists such a thing as knowledge in the world, and however impractical or useless that knowledge is to learn, it is worth devoting energy to discover, understand, and pass along. Sometimes this knowledge remains useless to know about, however interesting it might be: Should we classify Pluto as a planet? Why or why not? But sometimes this knowledge cures disease or paves the way for atomic weapons.
Swarthmore gathers together brilliant research scholars and encourages them to pursue their work while supporting the mission of educating the next generation of thinkers and scholars. It should continue to do this.
But somewhere along the line, this idea of research for the sake of research, or, as it’s sometimes thought of, “the usefulness of useless knowledge,” was distorted into an argument for devaluing knowledge that is of immediate utility. Somewhere along the line, vocationalism became sneered at. Just think, for example, of some of the grumbles about coding that one occasionally hears among humanists of a certain generation.
The problem is that such devaluing is wrong semantically, historically, and practically.
The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is an inclusive pursuit. Nothing about taking that mission seriously necessitates simultaneously devaluing knowledge that is pursued for the sake of utility. The two can coexist. Indeed they did. The initial purpose of the Liberal Arts proposal was to carve out a little room among all the applied knowledge for some theoretical pursuits; not ever to dismiss applied knowledge altogether.
For example, the study of engineering, perhaps the most practical and applied of the sciences, has been a distinguished and integral part of the college for a very long time.
Additionally, the example of an institution similar to Swarthmore might be relevant here. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, an institution that was led and shaped by the Swarthmore president who had the most lasting influence on our curriculum, in fact placed value on applied knowledge. Though the center was devoted solely for the pursuit of advanced research by established academics, many of its leading scholars applied the knowledge they were pursuing at the Institute toward commercial work at Bell Labs, one of the 20th century’s premier R&D companies. Theoretical knowledge and knowledge applied for vocational purposes used to go hand in hand.
Last, it is a mistake to think that the pursuit of knowledge only goes in one direction, flowing from theoretical to applied to vocational. The drafters of the US Constitution, for example, were not solely academicians. They worked as surveyors and lawyers, farmers and printers. It is not a coincidence that we say they “framed” the constitution: that is what it is called when one lays the foundation of a house.
Financial Education as Vocational Learning?
The idea for this essay formed after I learned about a particular policy the college has in place for transfer students, namely, that students who transfer into Swarthmore are not given credit for accounting courses taken at their previous institutions.
The stated rationale for this inane policy is that accounting is a vocational course. Never mind that the college itself appears to offer one financial accounting course, or that many courses offered at Swarthmore College could be considered vocational in nature, like computer science, mechanical engineering, lab biology, and painting. Additionally, many individuals who graduate from Swarthmore College in non-vocational subjects go on to make the research and teaching of those subjects their actual vocation. When you consider these facts, the dismissal of accounting on vocational grounds seems to be wanting in analytic rigor. But nevertheless, let us engage with the idea that all courses at the college have to be of a “liberal arts” nature.
The Liberal Arts defense of accounting and financial education is simple: Accounting is a research method. It may be clear that it is a research method employed in the discipline of economics. But it is also central for understanding politics, literature, or history: what, for example, do the ledgers of the slave trade tell us about the history of the Atlantic? Well, to answer this question, one first has to be able to read a ledger.
The college’s existing stance toward financial education points to something more pernicious, however, than illogic on the part of those who designed the curriculum all those decades ago.
The unstated but banal reason for why accounting is discredited is, to put it simply, elitism. (And, if the curricular philosophies of the 1920s were not wholly detached from the college’s other policies, then perhaps some residual anti-semitism as well.)
Historically a school of trust-fund babies and fac-brats, Swarthmore would likely have had no need to teach its students how to think about money: their parents would do that for them, as, in fact, mine did for me. When I was eight years old, my father sat me down and taught me how to read a spreadsheet and calculate compounded interest. He learned the basics of economic reasoning from his own father, who lifted himself out of abject poverty by selling street goods as a teenager in 1940s Kabul. Those lessons from my father remain some of the most interesting and important things I’ve learned in my life, my time at Andover and Swarthmore included.
Though the Swarthmore of today educates perhaps more than its fair share of modern McCabes and Clothiers, it has also very nobly committed itself to the education of a broader swath of youth. But seriously committing to inclusivity requires reconsidering what students might or might not be presumed to know before entering the ivory tower.
For first-gen and low-income Swarthmore graduates to be well-situated for the material challenges of life, they ought to be equipped with the tools to understand how they can get ahead in the economic game, and be able to support their families and communities when they enter the workforce. The college should take seriously the mission of using education as a tool for financial and community uplift. After all, it is not a coincidence that the words for liberal learning and economic liberalism are one and the same: Functioning, market-based liberalism has enabled an extraordinary degree of individual liberties and liberal learning over the last three centuries, the opinions of your armchair-Marxist dorm-mate notwithstanding.
Beyond, however, the importance of financial education at the college for solidifying the class-mobility of its lower-income students, the incorporation of financial education into the Swarthmore curriculum will also allow Swarthmore to fully live up to its stated mission of engaged scholarship and civic engagement.
One imagines that in 2021, the faculty of the college are eager to find ways to discourage the Instagram activism and lazy, rhetorical politics we have seen so much of in the last decade. One way to do this is to give students the tools to properly analyze the issues they care about in a way that will enable them to work toward implementable and effective solutions. These tools will inevitably require studying finance, as some of the most challenging and complicated problems in modern civil society — like ameliorating poverty or achieving fair wages for laborers — often require nuanced analyses of costs and benefits. (There’s a reason, presumably, that it is called collective bargaining.)
I propose that Swarthmore College provide financial education in pursuit of Liberal Learning. The course could partner with the Lang Center to make the most of Swarthmore’s mission of engaged scholarship, and use real life case studies as an example. Such an approach would be in line with the Liberal Arts mission of pursuing epistemic truth, and yield immense other benefits to students as well.
The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used to ask: “What is the difference between a bookkeeper in Brooklyn and a Supreme Court justice?” And her answer was: “One generation.”
Many people view this as a lesson on the power of the American dream.
Unsurprisingly, I view it as a lesson on the power of bookkeeping.