Humanities Education Isn’t Dead Yet

STEM Education Has Shortcomings

Those of us who graduated with Liberal Arts degrees have been pummeled by those who see STEM coursework as the only ‘legitimate’ higher education course of study.  Led by Arne Duncan and President Obama, we have been subjected to an ongoing push to offer more STEM courses in high schools and push more young people into STEM fields in higher education.  I’m a graduate of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, a high quality liberal arts college that produces a range of high performing folks in the sciences, business, economics, history, philosophy, foreign languages, and more.  It also provides opportunities for most of it’s students to study in locations across all continents, where we see the world through international eyes.  I was transformed by this liberal arts education, and I’m happy to see increasing validation of the humanities in recent articles, including Forbes and FastCompany.

Tech CEO’s Want Liberal Arts Grads

In, August 28, 2014, Elizabeth Segran reports on multiple conversations with top CEO’s in tech who identify the special attributes that liberal arts grads bring to the workplace.  Quoting Steve Jobs from a 2010 interview, Jobs “famously mused that for technology to be truly brilliant, it must be coupled with artistry. ‘It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,’ he said. ‘It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.’ ”

After Segran’s conversations with these CEO’s, with backgrounds in religion, existential philosophy, and East Asian Studies, she writes “… all the humanities-trained tech leaders I spoke with emphasized the importance of understanding their company’s technology inside and out. Once they have this knowledge under their belt, they have the unique ability to translate complex technical processes into clear, simple language—an important skill when dealing with investors and buyers.  She also notes that a third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees, a fact that is generally overlooked by the STEM pushers.

Forbes Magazine Cover: Liberal Arts as Tech’s Hot Ticket

The August 17, 2015 cover story in Forbes Magazine updates this story line, featuring the cofounder of Slack Technologies, Stewart Butterfield, who holds a BA and MA in Philosophy.  “Studying philosophy taught me two things,” says Butterfield, sitting in his office in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a neighborhood almost entirely dedicated to the cult of coding. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”

The Forbes article is full of similar reporting on the growing awareness that engineers and coders need the creativity, communication skills, interpersonal connectivity, and divergent thinking that are fundamental to the rounded education that the liberal arts embody.  Their examples of how such skills are being utilized across start-ups nationwide belie the din of liberal arts detractors who think coding is the next great literacy requirement for success,

I’ve always been puzzled by the idea that STEM is the magic bullet for America’s future.  Our society was built by Renaissance men like Thomas Jefferson, who were polymaths in their day.  He was a lawyer, agronomist, musician, scientist, philosopher, author, architect, inventor, and statesman.  True, he was an exceptional individual, but he embodied the notions of today’s liberal arts educational programs.  Let’s remember that as we consider how to keep American education focused on the whole child and on life in a democracy, not simply on narrow skills training to feed emergent corporations and technologies.

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