synthetic zero

June 19th, 2011

I wrote the following letter in response to this bizarre and wrongheaded article in Salon, Is It Time to Kill the Liberal Arts Degree?

As an engineering manager in the tech industry, I have to say this article is totally, utterly misguided and wrong. If anything, college has already moved far too much into the vocational school arena. The purpose of a university education isn’t, I repeat isn’t and shouldn’t ever become mere job training. If you want job training, go to ITT Technical Institute. If you want an education, go to a liberal arts college or university.

One of our singular strengths as a nation is our post-secondary educational system. While we lag far behind the rest of the world in primary and secondary education, we remain far ahead of the world in terms of college education, at least at the elite level. Our top universities consistently rank far ahead of the rest of the world. Furthermore, only in the United States and Canada does the ideal of the liberal arts education really have a strong foothold — and this is something we should continue to encourage, not move away from as this completely misguided article suggests.

As a manager who is constantly looking for employees who can think critically, I am constantly grateful for the liberal arts tradition in our country. Liberal arts doesn’t mean simply the existence of degrees in literature and the humanities — it means that every student at our colleges has access to a broad educational palette to choose from. Even people who graduate as physics or engineering majors typically also have taken some literature and history in college; it’s usually required that students take a broad array of distribution requirements. This is not something which happens in other countries; in the UK, for example, students go straight from high school to medical school or law school, completely skipping the undergraduate level, with the notion, perhaps, that getting a broad education is unnecessary if you’re going to go into a profession such as medicine or law.

But what we need in today’s economy is broad-based critical thinking. I don’t want or need to hire an engineer who can’t communicate well in English or who has no ability to work with designers, marketing people, project managers, user researchers… Building products for the next century requires not only a deep but a wide understanding of the human condition, of how people live, how they think, how they function in the world. I’ve hired engineers who were English majors and designers who have degrees in architecture and technical project managers who are also novelists in their spare time. And all of those hires were spectacularly successful, in no small part to the liberal arts education they all received as undergraduates.

We have a proud and long tradition of the liberal arts in this country. It’s no wonder that Europe and Japan, which lack this tradition, have been unable to catch up with us in areas of tech innovation. They don’t and have never understood the value and power of liberal arts. Now is not the time to start copying them.

Moving away from the liberal arts ideal is not only bad from an intellectual and moral standpoint; it’s bad from an economic standpoint.

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