“You went to university just to get a Bachelor of Arts?”
“So what are you going to do with that philosophy degree? Get a job stocking shelves at the supermarket?”
“What do you mean you studied ethics? Like, whether or not it’s ok to kill someone?”
If you’ve taken liberal arts courses in university and college, these kinds of comments will sound familiar. You’ve been told by friends, family, and just about everyone else that your degree is useless. That the kind of skills you learnt will never apply to a ‘real world’ job. That you’ve wasted your potential.
When you started job hunting, you probably struggled. You probably thought about trying something else. You probably thought that the naysayers had been right all along.
Well, I’ve got some good news: they weren’t.
Over the last few years, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have come to the consensus that your liberal arts degree is good for quite a lot, actually. Especially when it comes down to creating the technology that will define our future.
For the sake of clarity, we shall define the liberal arts as the humanities (literature, language, history), social sciences (anthropology, geography, economics) and, of course, the creative arts (theatre, music, writing).
While the sciences and mathematics used to be considered part of the liberal arts contingent, today they make up half of the STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths – field that has come to be seen as the foundation of the future workforce.
Modern thinking positions the liberal arts and STEM as polar opposites. People are creative or logical. Left brain, or right brain.
It’s a complete myth that people work that way, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be pushed towards STEM fields.
In 2011, Bill Gates suggested to the National Governors Association of the United States that funding for liberal arts classes be reduced or removed entirely, as the study of such topics would not lead to viable career opportunities.
Three days later, at the launch of the iPad 2, Steve Jobs came out against this belief, declaring “…it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing…”.
Seven years later, Microsoft, under the leadership of president Brad Smith and EVP of AI and Research Harry Shum, would echo Jobs’ view when discussing AI.
“As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions”, they wrote in their book, The Future Computed.
It’s not just in tech fields seeking to generate virtual intelligence that liberal arts learnings are relevant either. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield studied philosophy. Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki has a B.A. in History and Literature. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was a medieval history major.
Superficially, their education made each unsuitable for the job. Objectively, however, it made them perfect. Philosophy taught Butterfield how to breakdown bias in the search for the truth behind what makes things great. Wojcicki learnt the importance of passion and connection. Fiorina realised that the computing age would mirror the Renaissance in its ability to revolutionise culture, and that to lead change was the only way to survive it.
Whether you’re in tech, or any industry, it’s important to recognise the power of perspective. Traditional thinking and skills are, of course, important, but to truly excel, businesses must be open to approaches they might have previously dismissed by default.
As for you liberal arts majors: keep exploring. Your skills and knowledge may be exactly what a company needs to cross the threshold of greatness. Just be prepared to prove it.