Op-Ed

Liberal-arts education essential to advance in tech age

Michael T. Benson
Michael T. Benson

Psychology, sociology, history, political science, economics and philosophy — some maintain that these and other “liberal arts” majors result in less-than-ideal job prospects.

Indeed, recently one presidential candidate called for “more welders, less philosophers” while a well-known venture capitalist quipped that English graduates, “end up working in a shoe store.” Sadly, this sentiment seems to be growing right here in Kentucky.

And yet the liberal-arts majors listed above represent the undergraduate courses of study, respectively, of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase; Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States; Samuel Palmisano, former CEO of IBM; Condoleeza Rice, former secretary of state; John Watson, CEO of Chevron, and Carl Icahn, billionaire Wall Street mogul.

And let’s not forget J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. She completed a bachelor’s in French and classics.

To be sure, not every art history major will run a Fortune 500 company or write blockbuster fiction. And difficult economic times most certainly demand training that can result in immediate employment.

However, as more and more jobs become automated with advanced technologies, liberal arts is the training that will increasingly be rewarded in the modern marketplace.

As computers become more sophisticated, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “It is precisely the emotive traits that are rewarded: the voracious lust for understanding, the enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist, the empathetic sensitivity to what will attract attention and linger in the mind.”

No major cultivates these “emotive traits” better than the humanities.

MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explain in their book The Second Machine Age that while computers beat humans in games like chess and Jeopardy!, when humans work with a computer the two are stronger than one or the other alone.

What humans add is their humanity — or humanities.

The future lies in melding technology and humanity in useful ways. Back in 2010, Steve Jobs wistfully mused: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

And so at Eastern Kentucky University we are striving to outline specific ways to wed liberal arts with the practical and technical skills of today. Graduates in history, for example, can buttress their job prospects by choosing from among 23 career paths designed to meld a broad liberal-arts background with fields such as electronic media, journalism, public relations, advertising, paralegal sciences, economics, geography, communication studies, management, and globalization and international affairs, among others.

We are the first in Kentucky to create such pathways for our history students but hardly the first in the United States. One stellar example is Wake Forest University. Its Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship program, housed in the School of Business, offers an interdisciplinary minor in Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise.

The program offers core courses and electives in the various liberal-arts divisions and the concept of the minor is simple: coupled with any major within the college or the schools of business, it is designed to “enable students to enhance their skills in innovative, creative and entrepreneurial thought and action as applied to their specific discipline or career area of interest.”

While students need skills to earn the jobs of today, they also need the analytical acuity and creativity to catalyze the economies of tomorrow. We must train them for both, and value the irreplaceable role the liberal arts play in shaping leaders for the future.

Michael T. Benson is president and professor of government at Eastern Kentucky University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Brigham Young University, a master’s degree in non-profit administration from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate in modern Middle Eastern history from the University of Oxford.

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