What Good Is the Liberal Arts for a Career?

Making coffee with the liberal arts?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 results that make our heart sing.

–Steve Jobs, introducing the iPad


The art major is the person who walks the dog of the computer science major, or at least so goes the new wisdom. Computer engineers make money while philosophy majors make coffee.


Educators in the liberal arts are on the defense. Business and technology skills are in demand. Why waste time with other, possibly frivolous, studies? With the skyrocketing costs of college, what sane parent would encourage their child to get on the poverty train with a potentially useless degree in history or poetry?


Science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM) is sucking all the oxygen out of the higher education debate. Some politicians have even proposed granting tuition discounts and better loan rates for students going into science and technology education.


STEM push-back from the business world


After all the hype, some caution is needed. Companies are realizing that in the long term, business success requires a broad cultural and historical education. Business leaders who are creative thinkers and skilled communicators are in acutely short supply today.


The study of culture and history is actually urgent for future business and technology leaders, I believe. Without it businesses will have no way to understand their customers. How can a leader make decisions in the global marketplace without knowing the cultural histories of the people doing business with him or her? Would the CEO of Outback Steakhouse invest in rural India where cows are still sacred?


Technical skills change rapidly. They are outdated quickly, unlike the skills acquired with a liberal arts education. Leaders without broad education and critical thinking in the liberal arts will be unable to perceive–much less capitalize on–new business opportunities.


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What do future business leaders really need?


An elastic and expandable mind is the single biggest credential, I believe, for long-term success in business. To think critically and write clearly, while collecting information in a methodical way. These are the skills of the mind in high demand.


The challenge for higher education is to blend the technical and the liberal arts. What do future business leaders really need? So many of our problems are multilayered and multidimensional, and must be considered in light of other disciplines. The computer science major can determine how to build the data storage of a gigantic hard drive; it’s up to the liberal arts major to figure out what people will put on it.


It is clear that 75 years ago the Nazis had the greatest technology in the world. Their planes flew higher and faster. Their tanks were unstoppable. Their machines were the best. The greatest technology in the world but not the slightest clue of what is human.


Einstein and Picasso joined at the hip


The History Doctor asserts that technologies must advance what is humane about us. They must advance what is good about us. Too often technologies ultimately degrade, rather than exalt, our humanity. In the history of the world, scientists have always asked the technical question, can we? It is up to reasoning citizens to ask, should we? Nuclear power, for example. Human cloning.


Gizmos and gadgets will continue to arrive at a dizzying pace. And no, the stock market won’t crash if we don’t Remember the Maine or Remember the Alamo. But without historical and cultural context, we have no way of knowing ourselves. Democratic self-government cannot be maintained. We will continue to divide into the rulers and the ruled.


Intellectual fragmentation is the opposite of what our world needs. The best decisions, products and services result from people in different fields brought together to work on a single problem. We need Einstein and Picasso joined at the hip.


Educating for a nuanced understanding of human needs, wants and desires is the best Rx for future business success.


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