The liberal arts may still have great value in today's job market. Carsten Frauenheim | Mustang News

Max Reichardt is a communication studies senior and Mustang News columnist. The views expressed in this column do not reflect the viewpoints and editorial coverage of Mustang News.

When the term originated in ancient Greece, the “liberal arts” represented the robust, well-rounded education required for public service, democratic participation and proper citizenship. To exist and thrive in society (at least, in the educated upper classes) one was expected to have knowledge of the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) alike.

We don’t live in ancient Greece, but we might consider this mindset as students in an institution designed to prepare us for competent professional and personal lives—one that exists in a country steeped in Grecian
democratic principles.

A recent article from Harvard Business Review (HBR)—titled “Liberal Arts Majors are the Future of the Tech Industry”—examined three novel ideas about the role of liberal arts in the tech space, and advocated for reconsideration. Venture capitalist Scott Hartley believes as tech skills, such as coding, become easily accessible through the internet, recruiters should focus more on the human problem-solving perspectives and flexible skillsets of their applicants.

That is not to say engineers and computer scientists are incapable of creative, empathic thought, just as humanities-educated folks are not incapable of applied mathematics or computer programming. Such dichotomous thinking is what creates rifts between disciplines in the first place. The allocation of resources toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) versus liberal arts is especially evident at a polytechnic university like Cal Poly. STEM students can be more accustomed to technical thinking and perhaps have not been exposed to the amount of literature, art and humanities-focused curriculum that cultivates a more humanist mindset.

The end goal of any (tech) company is to provide value to their customers in the form of an innovative product or service, but it is easy to stray from this mindset in an age of faceless big data analytics. While such processes are crucial to understanding and solving business challenges, it is possible to become stuck in a mechanical frame of mind. As author and Assistant Editor at HBR J.M. Olejarz put it: “What matters now is not the skills you have but how you think.”

These differences surely cause liberal arts students to feel uncertain about how they will fit in after they graduate. Certain degrees have a clearer “path” laid out for them since they are so specialized and skill-based, i.e. STEM. Liberal arts can be more open-ended with available options for gainful employment, perhaps due to the abstract nature of their skillset relative to STEM. It’s up to you to specialize, but in a volatile and uncertain job market, the flexibility cultivated in liberal arts education will
prove invaluable.

A similar sentiment can be found in a New York Times book review from August: “Don’t Panic, Liberal Arts Majors. The Tech World Wants You.” The books reviewed have such Dr. Seuss-esque and slightly patronizing titles as “You Can Do Anything: The Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education.” Such coddling is evident of the general regard of liberal arts as “soft” skills, but the presence of this new literature might also signal a change of attitudes for the better.

On the other hand, these ideas are self-confirming and rosy at best. The post-grad world is challenging to navigate for anyone, so we all need to be as prepared as possible. Ultimately, it behooves anyone to expand their mode of thinking to include that which they don’t understand very well. These “soft skills” are worthy of as much respect as “hard” ones. Both groups are parts of a whole that contribute to a well-rounded individual—a liberal arts education in the classic sense.

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