Education

For the liberal arts, all is not lost in the digital future

Brian Conklin went back to school for computer science after getting a degree in philosophy from Florida Atlantic University. The combination of liberal arts and tech, Conklin says, helps him think abstractly about concrete tasks like programming.
Brian Conklin went back to school for computer science after getting a degree in philosophy from Florida Atlantic University. The combination of liberal arts and tech, Conklin says, helps him think abstractly about concrete tasks like programming. Courtesy Brian Conklin

Brian Conklin, who owns a website development start-up in West Palm Beach, knows he is a minority in the high-tech industry. He has a philosophy degree.

That’s a branch of those much maligned “liberal arts” that have been dumped on by politicians and de-emphasized in an American education system increasingly shepherding students toward science, engineering and technology fields touted as essential to the economy.

In 2011, Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott famously angered liberal arts educators, and anthropology departments in particular, when he talked about shifting funding priorities toward STEM programs and “to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don't think so.” But his view has bipartisan backing. Two years later, President Barack Obama also urged students to study computer science and develop “the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.”

Statistics show students are listening. The number of them opting for a liberal arts education has waned. But even many STEM industry leaders say something vital has been lost in the message. The digital world, and all fields of science, need more people with arts and humanities backgrounds — not fewer.

Conklin, who graduated from Florida Atlantic University in 2012, agreed his pursuit of a philosophy degree was “risky.” But he said his foundational knowledge of cultures and history help him to better relate to coworkers and clients and develop products that people use every day.

“I’m a big proponent of well-rounded techies and developers,” Conklin said. “If you’re coding, you have to take a lot into consideration, especially humans.”

At the University of Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences, the number of students majoring in English decreased by 10 percent in the past five years, while the number of those majoring in engineering and math has doubled, said Leonidas Bachas, dean of the school.

Bachas believes that’s not necessarily a good thing, and a survey by the Association of American College and Universities found that most employers agree: 75 percent of those responding said institutions of higher education need to place more emphasis on critical thinking and communication skills associated with the liberal arts.

It’s not just tech majors that need a liberal arts boost, said Bachas — it’s every field. To address this issue, the school has added programs in Chinese, Arabic and Brazilian studies to compliment degrees and even created a minor in medical humanities.

“When you become a doctor, yes, you need to know chemistry and biology…. but at the same time, we want you think about history, and think about art, and think about how you might look at the face of a patient and understand what they mean,” Bachas said.

Many students feel inclined to major in a STEM field out of fear of job security, but many of today’s leaders still come from the liberal arts. One-third of all Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs have a liberal arts degree. And technical prowess alone doesn’t create the best digital magic. As Apple Founder Steve Jobs famously observed at the iPad debut in 2010, “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

Some Miami companies have tried to hit that sweet spot. Brad Nickel founded a software-as-service company, AppsOnline, in Miami with partner Steven Browdy during the dot-com boom. Nickel came with a background in political science and theater and Browdy brought a Ph.D. in engineering and math. Nickel said exposing himself to computer science was his entry as a businessman into software development.

“Liberal arts majors who want to be in the tech field have to educate themselves in the basic concepts, and if they can prove they understand it well enough, they become invaluable,” Nickel said. When he looks at résumés, he doesn’t immediately dismiss one that leads with a liberal arts degree. After all, he said, developers may create a product, but it takes a smooth talker in the board room to convince investors to buy.

There has been a bit of a backlash to the STEM push, with a string of stories in mainstream media and business publications praising the virtues and versatility of those liberal arts majors, particularly the ones willing to learn the language of computing.

Fast Company, Inc.com, and Business Insider are just a few that reported on the value of the degree, while also encouraging liberal arts students to pursue careers in the tech field. Journalist Fareed Zakaria’s latest book, In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education, came out this year.

The ideal emerging model appears to be students with a blend of high culture and high-tech. Conklin, for instance, building on an innate love for technology and his informal programming skills, decided to also pursue a master’s in computer science.

“A more complete perspective leads to more complete products,” he said. “You’re creating digital solutions not for robots but for people, you have to understand people’s motivations.”

Besides communication and critical-thinking skills, a mind trained in the liberal arts also might have a broader perspective on a host of emerging ethical issues associated with the rapidly evolving digital landscape. Social media, artificial intelligence, drones and data mining all bring up questions, starting with personal privacy. Those topics, Conklin said, can be traced back to ancient Greece and were fodder for discussion in his undergraduate classes.

“People don’t realize this is an age-old thing in terms of ethics,” he said. “As a collective, society is pushing and [it is important] understanding what brilliant philosophers wrote about this.”

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