Thursday, August 28

Liberal arts major? Excellent!

The liberal arts have been trampled as people pile on to the STEM/CTE bandwagons. That's science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and career and technical education (CTE) for those of you who have been blithely ignoring the stampede. You're probably English majors, like me. I know of this stuff because of my work in education and the necessity of being alert to sudden movement to the next shiny thing.

On the one hand, I applaud the STEM and CTE movements, especially the latter. I think the STEM activists, I mean, advocates too often see STEM too narrowly just as I think those who are promoting the need for kids to learn too code see its applications too narrowly. But then, I'm a liberal arts major.


I've been known to ponder the future value of the liberal arts degree, fearing it would be swallowed up in the technology free-for-all. Still, I've always believed in the value of thoughtful communication, research, synthesis of ideas and concepts, and critical thinking, which are traditionally strong skills of a liberal arts major.

Lo and behold! Apparently tech CEOs are pretty keen on liberal arts majors, too. Yep, tech CEOs. In fact, the vanguard of creative technology himself, Steve Jobs, once said that "for technology to be truly brilliant, it must be coupled with artistry."
It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.
 According to Stephen Yi, CEO of Media Alpha, "liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white."

With our current focus on tinkering, invention, and MakerSpace, well, liberal arts majors are pretty good at tinkering with ideas, and most of us are not afraid to examine ideas, even products, pretty closely. One of the features of programming that attracted me to it was how much it is like a puzzle. Solving a particular problem using a coding language is a puzzle and requires the ability to see multiple possibilities and to wonder "what if?". Engineers are not alone in that. Artists, architects, writers, and musicians constantly tinker with the rudiments of the crafts and many experiment with the "what if?" when they try something different, maybe even unexpected.

Liberal arts majors are also challenged by the way they might be viewed by HR personnel, now often known as Talent Management personnel. I find that somewhat amusing in this context because HR personnel have to try the hiring manager knows what he or she is looking for, and have to trust the protocols of their processes. If an online system is used, a suitable candidate may be overlooked and rejected because the coding system is looking for specific words and phrases. No small irony there that a liberal arts major who might be an excellent fit for a tech company is rejected because of technology.

Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College, is a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, an organization whose focus is independent, liberal arts colleges and universities. She is concerned about
this trend because she thinks that training students for very specific tasks seems shortsighted when technology and business is evolving at such a fast rate. “It’s a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task,” she says. “We are doing a disservice to young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.”
This observation is a perfect segue to another Fast Company article: "Jobs of the Future: Where They Are, How to Get Them." Where are the new jobs? Good question. It's entirely possible they don't yet exist. [I've done presentations on this stuff and there's GREAT, fun research out there about the future of work.]

A liberal arts major, by the way, isn't just a bookworm. Perhaps the ease with which people misinterpret or misunderstand the liberal arts major is one of the roadblocks. Liberal arts majors aren't just English, humanities, language, arts, philosophy, and religion majors. Liberal arts majors have the liberty of being able to create programs that suit their interests and their passions, so liberal arts majors often combine something of those more traditional liberal arts with, yes, something from STEM.

Those who are liberal arts majors often have a balance of knowledge in the the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Some may be shocked by the amount of science and social science in the average 19th century novel. Because of the kind of work anyone in liberal arts must do, such majors have to have analytical, problem-solving skills, must be able to learn independently, and must be adaptable as they continue to learn and discover.

Liberal arts majors should not be dissuaded from their interests, especially because a liberal arts path may provide them otherwise inaccessible opportunities in a range of learning possibilities. Choosing a major should not be a matter of STEM vs. liberal arts, but an approach to academic and personal discovery.

Near the end of the "Jobs of the Future" article is this paragraph:
Donna Svei, executive search consultant believes the real key is to hone the skill of reinvention if they want to be a success. “Companies aren't explicitly shopping for that skill, but if they're part of inventing jobs that didn't exist five years ago, they're hiring people who know how to reinvent themselves,” she says.
In the process of academic and personal discovery, there are intersections, steps, missteps, switchbacks, and the occasional pause for breath and direction. Liberal arts majors may not be the only ones who can reinvent themselves for their work at hand, but they may be best suited to think imaginatively and critically about the "what if?" of reinvention.

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