It used to be that everyone would advise going into engineering or science for school. It used to be that those were considered the “safe” fields, while the humanities and the liberal arts were considered the “unsafe” fields. But is this true anymore? The world is changing fast, and with it, the work climate. Our needs and goals are different. So the question is “are the liberal arts and the humanities important?” And the unequivocal answer to this question is yes, yes, yes … yes!
Duke-Harvard joint survey
A 2008 survey jointly distributed and assessed by research teams at Duke and Harvard University found that, of 652 U.S. born chief executives and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies, a great many of them held degrees in the humanities and the liberal arts while barely 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology. They were all, however, highly educated with 92 percent holding bachelor’s degrees and 47 percent holding degrees higher than bachelor’s. Holding a degree makes a difference, it seems. The type of degree? Less important. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki majored in history and literature; Slack founder Stewart Butterfield in English; Airbnb founder Brian Chesky in the fine arts.
Jobs & Darrell weigh in
Steve Jobs long supported the arts and the pursuit of liberal arts and humanities’ studies. At the unveiling of the iPad 2, he said that technology alone is not enough and that this truth was in Apple’s DNA. He also said: “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 truer than in these post-PC devices.”
Bracken Darrell was an English major, and now he is the Logitech chief executive. He told The Washington Post that he agrees with Jobs’ assertion. He related that he managed to raise his company’s stock prices by 450 percent through “relentlessly focusing on design in every product the company built.” And where does design come in? I think you know the answer. Artists. Not engineers, scientists or anyone else of that ilk. Design requires empathy and knowledge of the arts and humanities, not the working knowledge of an electron microscope. And turning engineers into artists is hard, whereas teaching artists to code and use tech tools is easier.
A change in the game
Due to a technological shift, and growing emphasis, our powers as innovators are growing exponentially. Amazing things are being done every day. From artificial intelligence and sensors to advances in genomics and gene editing, we are creating amazing and novel creations and tools. But who are the ones who must bring the human touch to these tools? Who are the ones who will wield them through critical-thinking skills and framing questions in a human context? Of course, those who are best trained in such matters. The liberal-arts-minded, that’s who. As The Washington Post’s Vivek Wadhwa puts it:
“An engineering degree is very valuable, but the sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature and psychology provides a big advantage in design. A history major who has studied the Enlightenment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire gains an insight into the human elements of technology and the importance of its usability. A psychologist is more likely to know how to motivate people and to understand what users want than is an engineer who has worked only in the technology trenches.”
And so there you have it. Now, the perennial question: Should everyone start majoring in the liberal arts and the humanities now? Well, the answer, despite the aforementioned, is still on a case-by-case basis. People should always follow their hearts and passions. And that hasn’t changed. But the stigma surrounding the liberal arts and humanities as somehow “unsafe” fields needs to change and is changing in fact. Because it is simply based upon a lie.
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