The Liberal Arts

This needs to be said again and again. On USA Today:

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Thinking Outside the Box

Our tech-driven future needs the skills of liberal arts graduates.

As more and more college students set their sights on jobs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, we tend to forget about figures across history who achieved great things in science but who had no formal training as “scientists” – for example, Benjamin Banneker, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci and George Washington Carver. It was the culmination of their experiences, curiosity and critical thinking that led them to the height of science, discovery and thought.

When most people hear “liberal arts” their thoughts turn entirely to the humanities. A rigid barrier in the popular mind separates disciplines like chemistry and physics from English literature and art. I’m a biochemist by training, but today I lead one of the nation’s most unique liberal arts colleges; just recently I sat in on classes in English, art and music. What we and many others have come to understand is that a full education in the humanities is not just important for a career in creative writing, it’s also critical to a career in one of the oft- discussed STEM fields.

In a difficult economy, the “employability” of an education is always given significant weight. Parents have understandably gone from encouraging “learning for the sake of learning” to emphasizing the course of study that they believe will set their child up for a rewarding career. There has even been discussion as to whether we really need the liberal arts at all – STEM-centric education is portrayed as the only option for our children’s economic futures.

But when you ask the employers at huge corporations and technology companies what they need in their new employees, they want people who can communicate and learn quickly outside of their comfort zone, both traits fostered better by a liberal arts education than a solely technical degree. Fast Company noted back in August that many tech CEOs actually prefer employees with liberal arts degrees, as “the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white.” At my former liberal arts institution, I helped start something called the Center for Entrepreneurship, which is providing strong evidence that a liberal arts college can be an incubator for tech and innovation.

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