A liberal arts education is often described as an intellectual pursuit rather than a career-oriented discipline like engineering and business. Degrees in the liberal arts pay less attention to determining a specific career path. Rather, it fosters transferable skills and macro-knowledge like creativity, collaboration, effective communication, and critical thinking.
The education system of the United States defines the liberal arts broadly to include the Humanities (Philosophy, History, Languages), Social Sciences (Anthropology, Economics, Psychology, Sociology), Arts (Theatre, Music, Film, Media), Natural Sciences (Astronomy, Geology, Physics, Chemistry) and so on.
Due to the high employment pressures of our society, students of the humanities are often asked, “What is your degree for?” or “What is the purpose of the humanities?”
However, from Silicon Valley to the Pentagon, people are beginning to realize that to tackle today’s greatest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically and holistically for solutions. A task that humanities graduates are well-trained to do so. As such, to understand the true value of a liberal arts education, check out these three books!
In The Fuzzy and The Techie, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Scott Hartley, takes aim at the false dichotomy between the humanities and computer science. Some tech industry leaders assert that studying anything outside a STEM field is a mistake if you want to find a job in today's digital economy. According to a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Vinod Khosla, “little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future.”
According to Hartley, this STEM-only mentality is all wrong. The main problem is that it encourages students to be educated toward a singular career path. However, barriers guarding the tech industry are falling, and many jobs once required specialized training can now be done with simple tools found on the Internet. For example, a novice programmer can use code blocks from GitHub and help from Stack Overflow to start a project.
ChatGPT and similar technologies may bring students back to the foundation of a liberal arts education—critical thinking. With ChatGPT, students can submit a satisfactory assignment without reading, writing, or thinking. But these are essential to learning, and ChatGPT cannot replace thinking. Students who use software like ChatGPT are not well-versed in the complex cognitive process and, therefore, unable to formulate their own original ideas. The complex algorithm of AI may make seemingly meaningful sentences, but thorough analysis reveals that it lacks authenticity and is quite nonsensical.
If we want to prepare students to solve large-scale human problems, we must push them to broaden, not narrow, their education and interests.
Hartley collated a long list of successful tech leaders with degrees in the humanities, which include the following CEOs:
Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Slack and Flickr, is a Philosophy major;
Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, is an English major;
Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, is a History and Literature major;
Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, is an Industrial Design major.
Of course, we need technologists, but we also need people who understand why and how humans behave, Hartley said.
What matters now is not the skills you have, but your ideas. Can you ask the right questions? Do you know what the first problem to solve is? He advocated for a true liberal arts education—both the hard and soft sciences. According to him, comprehensive learning can open new opportunities for people and help them develop products that address real human needs.
A background in the humanities is also the focus of discussions in Cents and Sensibility, co-authored by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, professors of humanities and economics at Northwestern University. According to their book, economics tends to ignore three things: the influence of culture on decision-making, the role of stories in explaining people's behavior, and ethical considerations.
Morson and Schapiro suggest that economists can gain wisdom from reading great novels because they provide deeper insights into people than social scientists. Economists tend to think of people as abstractions, while novelists delve into details. When will a model of a scientist, or a case study, be able to paint a character as vividly as Tolstoy painted Anna Karenina?
Fiction can also help us develop empathy. Stories immerse us in the lives of the characters and allow us to see the world through someone else's eyes. Morson and Schapiro add that while many fields of research have emphasized the importance of empathy, only literature offers the practice of doing so.
Christian Madsbjerg, the founder of the Danish strategy consulting firm ReD Associates, borrows ideas from Morson and Schapiro in his book Sensemaking. Madsbjerg believes that unless companies work hard to understand the people represented in their data, they risk losing touch with consumers.
These three books’ approaches to the same subject may differ, but the bottom line is that for these authors, choosing a field of study is not as important as finding ways to expand your mind.
The liberal arts and the sciences need not be at odds with each other. Science and engineering students can be human advocates, just like English majors can be scientifically critical. We need not be nestled in the comforts of our own fields. Rather, by pursuing an interdisciplinary education, we can expand our minds and holistically develop ourselves and our society.
As you decide which major to pursue in college, do not discount the liberal arts from your choices. A liberal-arts-infused approach to a STEM education may provide you with an unexpected edge in your future career. As you make this important decision, our consultants at Enlighteens will guide you through choosing an institution that will allow you to design your own education so that it fits your own goals.