Liberal Arts Majors Are the Future of the Tech Industry

My sister the computer programmer benefitted early in her career because she was an excellent writer. She was so good at taking notes that people would invite to her important meetings so there would be a good record, and people would consult her about important topics covered during those meetings. My brother the electrical engineer knows how to treat customers; he smiles, spends time with them, listens to their concerns, and attracts new business for his organization. Of course, both also have the solid technical skills; but lots of other folks also have the technical skills. The fact that they are well-rounded people makes them even more valuable.

I got my first tenure-track faculty job during the dot-com boom; I did not write the best dissertation on American literature, or have the most lit-crit publications; I was good enough in those areas, but I was also a decent HTML coder. In the mid 90s, I had published an analysis of medieval drama that included a Java simulation, and as a grad student I paid the bills by making web pages for university writing centers.

Most of us won’t be the best at any one thing. Getting a well-rounded liberal arts degree lays a foundation for endlessly creative remixing.

Some tech industry leaders have proclaimed that studying anything besides the STEM fields is a mistake if you want a job in the digital economy…. Hartley believes that this STEM-only mindset is all wrong. The main problem is that it encourages students to approach their education vocationally—to think just in terms of the jobs they’re preparing for…. If we want to prepare students to solve large-scale human problems, Hartley argues, we must push them to widen, not narrow, their education and interests. He ticks off a long list of successful tech leaders who hold degrees in the humanities. To mention just a few CEOs: Stewart Butterfield, Slack, philosophy; Jack Ma, Alibaba, English; Susan Wojcicki, YouTube, history and literature; Brian Chesky, Airbnb, fine arts. Of course, we need technical experts, Hartley says, but we also need people who grasp the whys and hows of human behavior. —Harvard Business Review