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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The Liberal Arts in a Changing Labor Market

The development of artificial general intelligence reaffirms the importance of a liberal arts education.

Take a stroll around the first floor of Baker-Berry Library on the day that courses drop and you will find Dartmouth students comparing schedules, reading Layup List — a website that offers course and professor reviews —  and furiously browsing online for classes to fulfill their graduation requirements. For many, the jigsaw puzzle of finishing your major alongside the litany of distributive requirements is an unwelcome chore. Why should an engineering student “waste” a credit on an English course? In turn, why should an English student be forced to take a class in physics or chemistry? 

The liberal arts curriculum is a crucial part of academics at Dartmouth. While the liberal arts style of education has come under fire amid an increasingly technical job market and the ballooning cost of college, chatter around artificial intelligence and the popularity of products like ChatGPT may breathe life into the liberal arts philosophy. The skills gained from a liberal arts education — problem-solving, flexibility, creativity — will become increasingly important to employers in years to come. As these skills become more valuable, so too will the degrees offered by institutions like Dartmouth. 

With any new technology, there is change. Influential technologies make some tasks easier and automate others, at times drastically changing the labor market. Over the years, many occupations have either gone extinct or been forced to adapt: taxi drivers with the advent of Uber and Lyft, telephone operators with the personal cellphone and many big box stores like Macy’s with the rise of sites like Amazon. Joseph Schumpeter, in his book, “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,” calls this phenomenon “creative destruction”: jobs and products are left by the wayside in the wake of new innovations and technologies. 

The rise of AI promises such labor market disruptions. Tasks that were previously delegated to humans like copywriting, basic coding and even basic research and synthesis are now being performed at a much lower cost using ChatGPT. In other words, the next wave of creative destruction has already begun. As ChatGPT has made its way into the corporate ecosystem, workers are receiving less work or getting laid off outright. Worse, there is reason to believe that we are now witnessing only the tip of the iceberg, with artificial general intelligence just around the corner. 

AGI is a type of artificial intelligence that would, in theory, display human-like intelligence. As organizations like ChatGPT’s OpenAI continue to pursue its development, AGI remains the subject of widespread outcry and public criticism. An AGI’s ability to write scripts and screenplays contributed to the 148-day writers’ strike in Hollywood. Notable figures including Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak have penned letters out of concern for the future of AI, calling for a pause on AI research and development. Another letter signed by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman writes that “mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” The sentiment across these public condemnations is the same: The destruction brought about by AI may prove too much for humanity as a whole. What will be left for humans to do when an AI could do it faster, cheaper and better?

The question then, for potential employees and employers alike, is: What will creative destruction look like in the age of artificial intelligence? 

For years, researchers have carried out the thought experiment of which jobs will fall at the AGI hurdle. Hundreds of articles, research papers and conferences later, the academic community still has yet to reach a consensus. Instead, there is hardly any understanding of when AGI will become more commonplace, what functions it will have and what the labor market will look like when AGI finally arrives. Even with the taste we have gotten from the initial rollout of generative AI, we can see its proficiency at select tasks. With their vast databases of information from across the internet, these systems have a much larger pool of data than any one human can match. AI has become exceptional at scraping data and generating a simple summary. What it has trouble with is truly original content creation, solving complex problems and social interaction. 

These skills just so happen to be some of the most important by-products of a strong liberal arts education. Students at Dartmouth get better at problem-solving when they are forced to interact with subject matters that are not intuitive or familiar to their skill sets. Regardless of their majors, students will have to complete projects and make original creations, exercising their abilities to transform information from textbooks and readings into something completely unique. In addition, students in liberal arts programs are thrust into classes and study groups with peers who have completely different interests and perspectives. Thus, a Dartmouth student’s ability to communicate and collaborate with people of all different backgrounds becomes pivotal to their success in college. These interactions and experiences are magnified in liberal arts schools, which prioritize diversity of thought more than your average business or technology-oriented university. 

So the next time you find yourself dreading the seemingly never-ending list of distributive requirements ahead, remember that there is indeed a place for liberal arts in the future workplaces. As AGI continues to gain traction and our digital helpers start competing for more of our jobs, it may be our liberal arts degree — that freshman seminar or earth sciences lab — that ends up being the key to working in an age of creative destruction. 

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.