Why the Liberal Arts Are So Important

One of my colleagues on the academic side of the house forwarded me this article from LinkedIn. It is entitled “Why liberal arts and the humanities are as important as engineering” and it is a terrific reminder of why we need students who are conversant in all the areas of human knowledge. The well-roundedness that our students develop through their sampling of courses in the humanities, literature, the arts, the social sciences, and math and natural sciences (in other words, our Divisional Requirements) will serve them well for the rest of their lives, but also their careers.

Here is a taste of the article:

“In 2008, my research teams at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executives and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated, 92 percent holding bachelor’s degrees and 47 percent holding higher degrees. Hardly 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just 2 percent did in mathematics. The rest had degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, health care, and arts and the humanities.

We learned that though a degree made a big difference in the success of an entrepreneur, the field it was in and the school that it was from were not significant factors. YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki, for instance, majored in history and literature; Slack founder Stewart Butterfield in English; Airbnb founder Brian Chesky in the fine arts. And, in China, Alibaba chief executive Jack Ma has a bachelor’s in English.

Steve Jobs touted the importance of liberal arts and humanities at the unveiling of the iPad 2: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.” With this focus, he built the most valuable company in the world and set new standards for the technology industry.

Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell, who majored in English, also emphasized this. I recently asked him how he turned his company around and caused its stock price to increase by an astonishing 450 percent over five years. He said that it was through relentlessly focusing on design in every product the company built; that engineering is important but what makes a technology product most successful is its design.

The key to good design is a combination of empathy and knowledge of the arts and humanities. Musicians and artists inherently have the greatest sense of creativity. You can teach artists how to use software and graphics tools; turning engineers into artists is hard.”

You can read the full article here. It is well worth your time. And if you can’t read the whole thing now, let me give you this one paragraph that is critically important:

“When parents ask me now what careers their children should pursue and whether it is best to steer them into science, engineering, and technology fields, I tell them that it is best to let them make their own choices. They shouldn’t, I tell them, do what our parents did, telling us what to study and causing us to treat education as a chore; instead, they should encourage their children to pursue their passions and to love learning.”

Amen.

 

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