Focusing on those who graduate from college with a humanities degree, the author pulls together key ideas from three different books to argue “that to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically” about the human context, a skill that those who are well-versed in the humanities are well positioned to lead.

One of the critiques of STEM focused schools is that they shift education to become vocationally driven (i.e. you learn in order to be ready for a specific job) therefore, skills and instruction are focused solely around that future job. An unintended by-product of this approach is that children begin to think something is worth doing only if it provides direct value to them. A classical approach to learning takes a slightly different view that is less utilitarian: what you learn is valuable in and of itself and, as a result of this learning, you will be well prepared. The pitfalls of a vocational approach to learning are becoming more relevant today. Entry barriers in many fields are decreasing as employers are looking for people they can train, not people who have already mastered every aspect of the technical skills listed.

“What matters now is not the skills you have but how you think. Can you ask the right questions? Do you know what problem you’re trying to solve in the first place? Hartley [author of The Fuzzy and the Techie] argues for a true “liberal arts” education—one that includes both hard sciences and ‘softer’ subjects. A well-rounded learning experience, he says, opens people up to new opportunities and helps them develop products that respond to real human needs.”

A second book, Cents and Sensibility, highlights the value of literature in helping develop empathy and a deeper insight into human nature, areas that are often overlooked in STEM-oriented classrooms. Through literature we can learn how to view the world through someone else’s perspective.

Sensemaking,  a novel by Christian Madsbjerg, connects Hartley’s work with that of Cents and Sensibility. While data analytics is an important skill, and one that students should learn, Madsbjerg argues that, without understanding the human beings actually represented in the data, the analytics are worthless and will result in a company losing touch with its customers. This is evident in the many, recent global election results where expert data predictors were surprised by actual results. Pure analytics without human understanding often miss the mark.

I will let the author of the article provide us with the closing words to this reflection:

“STEM students can care about human beings, just as English majors (including this one, who started college studying computer science) can investigate things scientifically. We should be careful not to let interdisciplinary jockeying make us cling to what we know best. Everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer, as the saying goes. Similarly, at how great a disadvantage might we put ourselves—and the world—if we force our minds to approach all problems the same way?”

Note: The Hartley book is discussed in more detail here (the importance of liberal arts in the AI economy).

 

Matthew Breazeale
Lower School Head
Trinity Academy