Let me preface this column by saying I have a liberal arts background. I have a bachelor’s in social science and a double master’s in history and education. I believe this full disclosure is warranted because I want to address a hotly debated topic: the value of a liberal arts education in our technologically driven society.
Not since the days of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in October 1957 (the first artificial satellite ever launched into orbit) has the cry for technical superiority and primacy been so loud in our country. Caught in the grips of the Cold War, many Americans saw the country as fearfully and woefully behind the Soviet Union, its ideological and military archenemy, which now, it seemed, had the capability to quite possibly destroy the United States from the reaches of space itself. Of course we know now this was a giant exaggeration of Soviet technical capability, but at the time the threat to America seemed very, very real.
While today no nation’s technical competence or engineering prowess appears so advanced that there is a fear America will be left in the dust, there is still a gnawing worry other countries are catching up and our dominance in this area is in danger. It’s time, some say, to turn away from the less productive and meaningful subjects of psychology, history, political science and the like, to those of relevance such as computer science, engineering and physics.
Into the fray comes, I think, a very timely work, “In Defense of a Liberal Education” by Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria, himself a native of India, came to America in the 1970s on a scholarship he obtained from Yale. He majored in history and has risen to be a respected author, columnist, editor, policy analyst and public intellectual. He is also host of the weekly CNN show “Global Public Square” (GPS). He epitomizes the power of a liberal arts education.
Zakaria observed that since its inception during the time of the Greeks and later the Romans, there have been skeptics or those who “disagreed over the purpose of a liberal education.” As with today, there are those who emphasized the value of the practical over the philosophical or more abstract. In other words, education should focus more on teaching the young how to do something, rather than thinking about or pondering on ideas that produce no concrete value.
However, Zakaria relates an interesting true story. In the early 2000s a young man entered Harvard as a psychology major, but he also had a deep and abiding interest in computers and coding. The young man also studied ancient Greek ardently while in high school. He had wedded his love of the liberal arts with his technical prowess in computers. The result was Facebook. The man was Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg would later note that Facebook is, “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.”
One of the obvious technology giants of our times, the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, declared, “It is 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 hearts sing.”
These two are not alone in their belief of the value of a liberal arts education. A recent survey of technology CEOs yielded the result that, “liberal arts training — with its emphasis on creativity and critical thinking — is vital to the success of their business.”
A 2013 survey of American businesses asked the question: “What do American business want from their college hires?” The overwhelming response was “creative thinkers and better communicators.” Ninety-five percent of respondents noted they seek out “college graduates who can think clearly and solve problems and be able to translate their ideas with good oral and communication skills.” Attributes, the survey notes, which are in short supply.
Zakaria echoes this point in his book when he observes, “Technology and liberal education go hand in hand in business today.” As America shifts from a “knowledge economy” to a “creative economy,” the ability to think, adapt, and communicate ideas has become increasingly more important.
“Learning and re-learning, tooling and retooling are at the heart of the modern economy.” A liberal arts background gives one the nimbleness of mind to be able to do this effectively. A background that Drew Faust, president of Harvard noted, “will help them get ready for their sixth job, not their first.”
This is not an either/or situation. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is very important. But if we emphasize these to the extent that we totally devalue the benefits and merits of a liberal arts education we do so to our nation’s peril. It is exactly the benefits and value of a liberal arts training that has made America so unique and allowed it to flower into the awesome country it is today. The foundation for our nation was laid by those steeped in knowledge of the liberal arts.
Today millions from around the world still come to this country for their higher education. They come from countries such as China, Singapore, South Korea (countries that often lead the world in standardized test scores). However, if education is so great in their home countries why do so many attend universities in the United States?
It’s because their home countries have done a great job in teaching them how to memorize facts and absorb the basics, but that’s not the essence of a true education. Learning to think, create, and innovate has always been the hallmark of an American university experience, one still sought after from those all over the world, and one facilitated by study of the liberal arts.