Can a Liberal-Arts Education Make you Effeminate?

by Matthew Shaffer

Let’s hope so!

I recommend this “Defend Your Research” dialogue in the Harvard Business Review. Anita Woolley and Thomas Malone have found that a group’s collective intelligence isn’t very correlated with the IQ of its individual members. This isn’t news to David Brooks’s readers. But what is new is the discovery of a very high correlation between a group’s collective intelligence and the percentage of women in it.

What’s the explanation? Women aren’t necessarily smarter or more hard-working than men. But they are more “socially sensitive.” They are more attuned to others’ emotional and nonverbal cues, and fundamentally more interested in and adept at adopting other people’s perspectives.

In other words, women are the great central processors; their minds reach out, scoop up, and aggregate all the good ideas in other people’s brains. They make the collective brain, well, collective. We men, whatever our virtues, are more confined to our own heads.

The research gave me hope. When I was in college, I used to give very romantic justifications for my humanities degree. It was all about the intrinsic worth of the pursuit of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness — utility be damned. I’m not sure that’s so wrong, but, post-graduation, I’ve found that real-world types desire something a little more functional. And this research suggests that the kinds of mental abilities we cultivate in the liberal arts — sympathy, sensitivity, capacity for gestalt-shift, self-criticism, carefulness in the choice and interpretation of words — may actually be as essential to a corporate boardroom as, say, systematic, engineering-style thinking, or specific, B-school-acquired knowledge.