Why tech needs the liberal arts and the liberal arts needs tech

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In March 2011, after famously introducing the second generation of the iPad, Steve Jobs praised the liberal arts, claiming that brilliant technology develops from creativity and critical thinking.

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” Jobs said. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

A growing sentiment among college students is the importance of a STEM-centric education––it is oft-repeated that the nation’s future economy depends on millennials who are majoring in science, technology, engineering and math. But while STEM professionals can drive innovation through applied science and technical skills, they lack foundational knowledge across a variety of disciplines that allows one to make an informed decision outside of an area of expertise.

The technology industry continues to grow and change, and it is unclear what the jobs of the future will look like. What is clear is that these jobs will require people to be trained to think critically outside of their pre-prescribed field. This skill—the ability to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity as the technological world develops—is one in which liberal arts students, and particularly humanities students, are well-versed. This is a skill that Occidental students are guaranteed to graduate with.

Courtney Stricklin, Assistant Director of Employer Relations at Occidental’s Career Development Center, believes that the top skills employers are looking for in candidates are taught at a liberal arts institution, and that students from Occidental are particularly well prepared for today’s job market due to the college’s emphasis on collaboration and teamwork.

“Knowing that the tech boom requires people to succeed in a start-up culture, to bring meaning to the organization regardless of role and to problem solve from day one, I think our students are well-positioned to become leaders in this field, which is why we have so many alum at places like Google and other growing tech firms,” Stricklin said.

According to Stricklin’s own conversations with employers, some of the top skills employers look for in candidates include the ability to work in a team structure, to make decisions and solve problems, to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization, to organize and prioritize work and to be able to obtain and process information effectively.

Recent Occidental graduates agree that these are the skills learned at Occidental and that the dexterity of these skills proves valuable and transferable to a career in technology.

“A lot of tech companies deal with change and ambiguous situations. At Occidental you learn critical thinking, problem solving, writing and communications skills that are really important in this type of environment,” said Ben Pigg ’12, who now works as a Global Support Specialist at Google. “In the working world, especially in tech, there’s no right or wrong major you could have. It’s really about understanding overall how a business operates.”

Unfortunately, students have been discouraged from majors in humanities due to the high demand for technologically trained professionals. Even President Obama took an unprovoked stab at art history degree-holders in a 2014 post-State of the Union tour, arguing that “skilled manufacturing” was a more useful career choice.

In a New York Times editorial, author Verlyn Klinkenborg commented that undergraduates feel pressure––from their parents, from the crippling burden of college debt and from society at large––to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs.

“What many undergraduates do not know––and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them––is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be,” Klinkenborg said.

In the technology industry, Klinkenborg’s claim holds up. A large proportion of technology CEOs are trained in the humanities, with a third of all Fortune 500 CEOs holding liberal arts degrees themselves.

As college students continue to shy away from humanities majors and opt for technology-centered education in the wake of uncertain job prospects and the steep college price tag, liberal arts institutions need to integrate STEM training into their pluralistic curriculums. Because while an education grounded in the humanities is unique and valuable in today’s job market, a background in STEM is necessary as technology advances.

Recently, I heard a peer sum up the liberal arts education with “I know a little about a lot.” I would argue that the liberal arts student knows a lot about a lot. At Occidental, we are taught a wide spectrum of subjects on an intimate scale. We connect with our professors and classmates in person everyday and we consistently and deeply engage with the complex issues of today. But in order to tackle the issues of tomorrow, students need curriculums that integrate both STEM fields and the liberal arts. With this type of educational background, future college graduates will be positioned to work nimbly across fields as the technological sphere develops at an unprecedented level, and be able to drive innovation accordingly.

 

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