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Why liberal arts and the humanities are as important as engineering

An engineering degree is very valuable, but the sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature and psychology provides a big advantage in design.

analysis Updated: Jun 22, 2018 18:28 IST
Steve Jobs gave credit for the success of the Mac to a calligraphy course that he attended. He also highlighted the importance of art and design at the unveiling of the iPad 2, when he said “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 us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices”.(AFP)

Doctor, engineer, or businessman were the three choices my parents told me I had for a career when I was growing up, with the third being at the bottom of the list. Even today, Indian parents dread the thought of their children becoming musicians or artists; engineering has become the most respected profession.

Because of the success of startups such as Flipkart and Paytm, parents don’t freak out as much when they hear that their child is starting a company any more. But engineering is still considered a prerequisite for success in the technology industry and this is what parents insist that their children study.

Some of Silicon Valley’s brightest stars aren’t engineers, they are Liberal Arts and Humanities majors. LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Hoffman, has a masters in philosophy; YouTube’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, majored in history and literature; Slack’s founder, Stewart Butterfield, in English; Airbnb’s founder, Brian Chesky, in the fine arts. Even in China, Alibaba’s CEO, Jack Ma, graduated with a B.A. in English.

My research at Duke and Harvard documented that US technology company founders tend to be highly educated, 92% holding bachelor’s degrees and 47% holding higher degrees. But just 37% have degrees in engineering or computer technology, and two percent in mathematics. Their degrees are in fields as diverse as business, accounting, health care, and arts and the humanities.

Steve Jobs gave credit for the success of the Mac to a calligraphy course that he attended. He also highlighted the importance of art and design at the unveiling of the iPad 2, when he said, “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 us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.” With this focus, he built the most valuable company in the world and set new standards for the technology industry.

Logitech’s CEO, Bracken Darrell, has a B.A. in English. When I asked him, recently, how he caused Logitech’s stock price to increase by an astonishing 450% over five years, he said that it was through relentlessly focusing on design in every product the company built; that though engineering is important, what makes a technology product most successful is its design.

Now, a technological shift is in progress that will change the rules of innovation. A broad range of technologies, such as computing, artificial intelligence, digital medicine, robotics and synthetic biology, are advancing exponentially and converging, making amazing things possible.

With the convergence of medicine, artificial intelligence, and sensors, we can create digital doctors that monitor our health and help us prevent disease; with the advances in genomics and gene editing, we have the ability to create plants that are drought-resistant and that feed the planet; with robots powered by artificial intelligence, we can build digital companions for the elderly. Nanomaterial advances are enabling a new generation of solar and storage technologies that will make energy affordable and available to all.

Creating solutions such as these requires a knowledge of fields like biology, education, health sciences, and human behaviour. Tackling today’s biggest social and technological challenges requires the ability to think critically about their human context, which is something that humanities graduates happen to be best trained to do.

An engineering degree is valuable, but the sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature, and psychology provides a big advantage in design. A history major who has studied the Enlightenment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire gains an insight into the human elements of technology and the importance of its usability. A psychologist is more likely to know how to motivate people and to understand what users want than is an engineer who has worked only in the technology trenches. A musician or artist is king in a world in which you can 3D-print anything that you can imagine.

When parents ask me now what careers their children should pursue and whether it is best to steer them into the science, engineering and technology fields, I tell them that it is best to let them make their own choices. They shouldn’t, I tell them, do what our parents did, telling us what to study and causing us to treat education as a chore; instead, they should encourage their children to pursue their passions and to love learning.

To create the amazing future that technology is enabling, India needs it musicians and artists working hand in hand with its engineers. It isn’t exclusively one or the other; it needs both engineering and the humanities.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University at Silicon Valley. His forthcoming book, Your Happiness Was Hacked, explains how you how you can live a more balanced technology life

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 22, 2018 18:27 IST