A quick defense of the liberal arts

When I was 15 or 16, I was a full-blown computer geek. In those days, that meant I could program in BASIC on green monitors. I read sci-fi and watched a lot of Doctor Who — back when it was a whimsical exploration of fantasy worlds rather than the romantic drama it is today. I was better with numbers than I was with words — my SAT scores and my English teacher told me so — and I was looking at engineering schools.

I really thought these traits made me superior. Somewhere along the way, I like to think I outgrew that arrogance. Maybe I just traded it for another arrogance, or perhaps I was just lazy and didn’t want to spend my afternoons in labs. Or maybe I realized it was better to be a well-rounded person.

And as I’ve gone through work and life, I don’t think it’s just my bias as a philosophy/music double major that makes me appreciate other well-rounded people. Maybe that’s the effect of a bunch of political arguments with people who know very little of life outside school, their computers, and their comfortable neighborhoods. And maybe it’s the realization that programming a computer is actually far easier on an intellectual level than most of the humanities and social sciences.

More importantly, I think we need to be a well-rounded society with respect for each other’s expertise. Right now, we ain’t got that.

And so I’m a little defensive when I read this from Marc Andreessen …

“We’re in a bubble for people with a non-Ivy League, non-technical education,” says Andreessen, who studied computer science at the University of Illinois. “If you have a degree in English from a tier B state school, you’re not prepared.” (via Jobs fight: Haves vs. the have-nots – USATODAY.com)

He has a point, sure. English in particular is a difficult major — if you’re going to major in a language, you should probably pick a different one that’ll make you valuable to a company in the era of globalization.

But in general, the liberal arts aren’t a sure path to unemployment. Just ask Google, which is binging on liberal arts hires.

The people who are dominating the computer industry these days are those who bring some creativity, not just code. The revered Steve Jobs innovated by making computers look cool. He could think in terms of technology and art, just like the graphic artists who are so highly coveted by employers.

And yet we have too many educators who think they’re serving students by making them spend a ton of time in one field.

That’s true even in journalism. I knew someone who insisted her journalism school was superior because it required more journalism classes than other schools. She learned things like Quark XPress shortcut keys. Great — until you go someplace that didn’t use Quark XPress.

And let’s not pretend math (the “M” in “STEM”) is taught in a practical way. We drill calculus into kids’ heads, and then they go out into the real world and find that statistics is much more valuable. If you’re not an engineer, you’re going to forget calculus by age 30. (I got a 5 on my AP exam. I’d have no idea how to do it now, and I don’t care — but I really want time to take a stats class.)

We teach math in a way that makes people better thinkers. Calculus is like batting weights for the brain — you wrestle with something complex in school so that the problems you face in the real world seem simpler.

That’s also true of philosophy. And history. And English, to an extent.

Basic skills can be learned on the job or in community college. The traditional liberal arts? You can read, of course, and today you can discuss things online to an extent. But by far the best place to learn them is in college.

And yet STEM departments pay lip service to the idea of educating well-rounded people. Even as science grows more complicated, they try to cram everything they can into four years of undergraduate instruction. Frankly, if I’m running a computer science department, I might require students to take Chinese rather than physics. Get the memo: We’re global now.

(Quick tangential story: In my college days, I had a science-major roommate who griped that we humanities majors could fulfill our science requirements by taking broad-overview classes rather than labs. I said that was better for us in the long run, and besides, you guys can take a music class that makes us music majors laugh. “Yeah, but that’s hard,” he said.)

I may be atypical in almost every respect, but I think I’m not alone in being turned off from a science major by the limited curriculum. The nearly psychotic focus on one subject also must turn off a lot of prospective doctors who question how they’re spending their time in residency.

But the true value of college wasn’t just about the individual. It was about being around people of diverse interests and skills. We learned to appreciate what those around us could do. I marveled at some of the experiments my pre-med friends were doing. A few people showed up at my percussion recital. (More people read my stuff in The Chronicle, which probably explains why I’m a journalist and not a tympani player today.)

So even if you’re taking a crappy curriculum, you benefit from the immersion in an idealized community.

Rather than placing artificial limits on those idealized communities, can we try to apply the lessons of diverse intellectualism to the real world?

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