Saturday, June 24, 2017

Liberal arts in the data age

College students who major in the humanities always get asked a certain question. They’re
asked it so often—and by so many people—that it should come printed on their diplomas. That question, posed by friends, career counselors, and family, is “What are you planning to do with your degree?” But it might as well be “What are the humanities good for?”

According to three new books, the answer is “Quite a lot.” From Silicon Valley to the Pentagon, people are beginning to realize that to efectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we  need to think critically about their human context—something humanities graduates happen to be well trained to do. Call it the revenge of the film, history, and philosophy nerds.
In The Fuzzy and the Techie, venture capitalist Scott Hartley takes aim at the “false dichotomy”
between the humanities and computer science. Some tech industry leaders have proclaimed
that studying anything besides the STEM ields is a mistake if you want a job in the digital economy.
Here’s a typical dictum, from Sun Microsystems cofounder Vinod Khosla: “Little of the material
taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future.” Hartley believes that this
STEM-only mindset is all wrong. The main problem is that it encourages students to approach
their education vocationally— to think just in terms of the jobs they’re preparing for. But the
barriers to entry for technical roles are dropping. Many tasks that once required specialized
training can now be done with simple tools and the internet. For example, a novice programmer
can get a project of the ground with chunks of code from GitHub and help from Stack Overlow.

If we want to prepare students  to solve large-scale human problems, Hartley argues, we must push them to widen, not narrow, their education and interests. He ticks of a long list of
successful tech leaders who hold degrees in the humanities. To mention just a few CEOs: Stewart
Butterield, Slack, philosophy; Jack Ma, Alibaba, English; Susan Wojcicki, YouTube, history and
literature; Brian Chesky, Airbnb, ine arts. Of course, we need technical experts, Hartley says,
but we also need people who grasp the whys and hows of human behavior.
What matters now is not the skills you have but how you think. Can you ask the right questions?
Do you know what problem you’re trying to solve in the first place? Hartley argues for a true
“liberal arts” education—one that includes both hard sciences and “softer” subjects. A wellrounded
learning experience, he says, opens people up to new opportunities and helps them
develop products that respond to real human needs.

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