I was in San Diego this week, sharing with risk management and law enforcement professionals how UC Berkeley has adapted to becoming a battlefield — almost literally — between publicity-craving outsiders on the radical right and left. I think I did pretty well. But what I took away from the visit was completely unrelated.

Prior to the conference, the risk manager who invited me confided that her boss was pressuring her to get an ARM — an Associate in Risk Management degree — and she was resisting because the subject matter was so dreadfully dull. I said, “I’ve been doing my job for years without an ARM, and nobody seems to have noticed. The truth is, unless you’re doing risk financing, which we’re not, you don’t really need one.” “Can you tell my boss that?” she asked.

Then after the conference I met an old friend, a professor at San Diego State. His son has just started at SDSU even though dad works there. “We’ve told him not to focus on a job-related field. We tell him to get a broad education, learn how to think, and you’ll be fine,” my buddy said. To which I heartily agreed. But of course I would. I was one of those English majors who got a broad education but had no answer when people asked, “What are you going to do with that?”

Although his son took the advice, my buddy was still concerned. “I hope he doesn’t get discouraged by his peers. Almost all of them just want to know ‘what do I have to do to get an A in this class?’ They’re not much interested in the subject matter. Taking a class for the sake of intellectual curiosity makes you a freak these days.”

Both exchanges confirm that the Paper Chase Syndrome is alive and well, which is not news, but is a shame. We still consider a degree proof someone can do a job well, despite the evidence to the contrary each of us has amassed through experience.

And yet higher education is under increasing pressure to prepare students for jobs.

Even if colleges and universities were to make the mistake of becoming high-end vocational schools, the best they could do is prepare students for their first jobs.

I’m not sure the job of risk manager even existed when I was in college. It certainly didn’t exist at UC Berkeley; the first risk manager there was appointed in 1985, a few years after I earned my BA. And what I do today likely bears little resemblance to what he did back then. (Unlike me, he may have benefited from having an ARM.)

I think it’s even more likely that the career my buddy’s son will ultimately land in (assuming robots aren’t doing everything by then) hasn’t been invented yet.

The ultimate qualifications for a good job are intelligence, analytical skills, communication skills, creativity, and patience, all of which remain largely unmeasurable. If you have them, you can quickly pick up the particulars of the trade and flourish.

For that reason, I don’t look for prior experience when I bring new people into the office. I look for intelligence, engagement, and linear thinking. Our office is considered among the most effective on campus, and people wonder why. Well, that’s the secret. Not a single one of us majored in business, and we didn’t have much background in insurance either. But all of us have active minds and have picked up whatever technical knowledge we need on the fly.

This is not an anti-intellectual argument; I’m not saying I’d be comfortable being operated on by someone who hasn’t successfully completed medical school. Rather, I want someone who went to med school with all the qualities I mentioned above, not just a dogged determination to stick out the curriculum.

Daybreak at Ocean Beach

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.