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In an op-ed provocatively titled “Is Majoring in Liberal Arts a Mistake for Students?” and published on Medium, the tech billionaire Vinod Khosla insists, in paragraph after unremitting paragraph, that a college degree has value if the degree holder is immediately employable or able to break down an article in the Economist. Khosla claims that STEM inclinations or professional degrees are worth their gold lettering and ornate frames, and liberal arts degrees are not worth the Sans Serif font used.
“Though Jane Austen and Shakespeare might be important, they are far less important than many other things that are more relevant to make an intelligent, continuously learning citizen, and a more adaptable human being in our increasingly more complex, diverse and dynamic world,” says Khosla.
First, it seems as though Khosla has not moved past grade school literature. He should perhaps add to his wood paneled library with Colson Whitehead, Kazuo Ishiguro, Tayari Jones, Mario Vargas Llosa, J.K. Rowling, Ramachandra Guha and other writers who are re-engineering intellectual complexity and charting unheralded journeys for this century.
Second, how is the scale of importance determined? Or even intelligence derived? It seems from several muddled paragraphs that Khosla assigns greater importance to subjects that enhance quantitative skills. (And while he does mention mathematics as being a liberal studies major, he ignores that assumption mostly). Here’s a study that proves how misguided Khosla’s premise is.
In May 2008, Duke and Harvard researchers interviewed 652 CEOs and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. The authors of the study, Vivek Wadhwa, Richard B. Freeman and Ben A. Rissing, found that the group surveyed were highly educated with 92% holding bachelor’s degrees and a good 47% with additional degrees. The surprising fact was more than 60% had degrees in diverse fields including humanities and liberal arts; 37% held degrees in engineering or computer technology and a mere 2% specialized in mathematics.
Wadhwa summarizes in an article for the Times, “Gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in and the school that it was obtained from were not a significant factor.” Furthermore, based on interviews and data collected, Wadhwa rejected the idea that engineers dominate Silicon Valley and that there is a correlation between a STEM degree and a capacity for innovation. “Both assumptions are false,” he declares.
And third, there are too many examples of people who have engineering degrees and are singularly uninformed in any but their domains, and hence less engaged with the world, therefore less adaptable, and less continuously learning. In fact, I heard from a few Silicon Valley cubicle dwellers recently that the #MeToo or the #TimesUp movements are inflated out of proportion, because they don’t see it playing out in their own lives.
“At the end of an undergraduate education, is a student roughly able to understand and discuss a broad set of topics like the Economist, end-to-end, every week?” Khosla asks, going on to reference the Economist several times in his essay. Curiously, the Economist seems to be the aiguille of mental acuity for Khosla.
Khosla argues that a liberal arts education doesn’t teach critical thinking skills. He points to the example of memorizing the Gettysburg address as being ultimately pointless. Really? Do you actually believe that memorizing speeches is the rounded sum of a liberal arts education? Let’s not even touch on what the Gettysburg address achieved during its time. It just seems that Khosla’s assumptions on what a liberal arts student learns are culled, curated and liberally misinterpreted from a Wikipedia definition.
In fact, I could make the opposing claim. A STEM curriculum does not prepare you to understand the full scope of Engels philosophy or the tripartite structure of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
I’ve crisscrossed the humanities and science fields in my own career and have professionally interacted with folks from both sides of the coin and I seriously doubt Khosla will find many average engineers reading the Economist. In fact, the Economist’s audience demographics lists 21% as IT and Telecom business purchase decision makers and this was the only technology related entry in the audience makeup that I could find.
I had the privilege of meeting Elizabeth Shanahan at an artist residency a few years ago. She was about twenty-one years old and displayed an uncanny ability to pick up languages after uber-brief studying jags. Thus did she pick up Spanish, and I watched her conversing somewhat fluently in French in a little town outside Paris. She later mentioned that before coming to France she had spent two-weeks immersing herself in that language and she was very keen to take on Hindi next. She was getting an arts degree at the time. I can almost certainly guarantee that she’ll pick up Java, Python, C and Ruby at the same speed that she picks up other languages. They’re all languages, after all.
Not everyone is Elizabeth. Fair enough. Khosla mentions that he’s targeting the median student, not the 20% who will be successful with or without a degree whatever that degree is. But in his arguments, he’s looking inwards. He argues that the average student with a liberal arts degree will not be able to move facilely into the analytical domain.
However, has Khosla ever considered whether there are folks with STEM skills who can master languages? There are far too many exception cases in spoken languages for a brain configured to deal with absolutism to master easily. That’s why robots will replace engineers sooner than artists or writers or philosophers in the foreseeable future.
Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, remarks on the “danger of popular parochialism,” the tendency to conform to very narrow outlooks. The kind that Khosla is liberally championing.
The most compelling reason for getting a liberal arts degree, is that it teaches individuals to pay attention to the world and to inculcate empathy. Strangely enough, this is exactly the argument Khosla uses to make his case against non-professional degrees. He believes that a humanist outlook, one fostering empathy, is likely to be obtained from a narrower focus, from pursuing professional degrees.
Could Khosla really believe that an individual spending countless hours working out game theory logic obsessively is more likely than an activist with a history degree to pay attention to the mentally troubled teenager living next door, or the Dreamers who are living in limbo, or the kidnapped girls in Nigeria?
Perhaps the most harmful line of reasoning is this one: “… it’s becoming harder and harder to go from majoring in English or History to having optionality on various future careers and being an intelligent citizen in a democracy,” Khosla states. I think Khosla should break out of his shield of zeros and ones and read Claudia Rankine or Paul Mudoon once in a while. For an industry icon to put out such a singularly absurd assertion in an essay that makes no point consistently, is wholly startling.
I believe that critical thinking is not the exclusive outcome of a liberal arts degree and neither to a STEM degree. The people most likely to change the world are the ones who are able to acquire a breadth of knowledge beyond what is taught, whether it be physics or rhetoric.
And when people from diverse backgrounds-a history major and a mathematician or an English major and an engineer-collaborate, innovative meteor showers can happen.
As Steve Jobs once put it when he announced the iPad2 in 2011, “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.” Ain’t that the truth!