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Review: The Fuzzy and the Techie by Scott Hartley

A book that convincing argues that a grounding in the humanities prepares students to tackle future challenges

books Updated: Jan 18, 2019 20:56 IST
Sachi Mohanty
Sachi Mohanty
Hindustan Times
humanities,liberal arts,Steve Jobs
Fuzzy AND Techie: Nathan Sawaya’s T-Rex sculpture made of Lego bricks at an exhibition in Italy.(LightRocket via Getty Images)
301pp, Rs599; Penguin

Were dinosaurs fuzzies or techies? Did our hunter gatherer ancestors gain a survival advantage by being a fuzzy or a techie? Paleontologists and anthropologists are best suited to answer these questions. But what are fuzzies and techies? Scott Hartley, author of the Fuzzie and the Techie, explains that, at Stanford, a ‘fuzzie’ was a student of humanities while a ‘Techie’ was a student of computer science. Hartley’s book looks at the challenges thrown up by the extraordinary contemporary advances in technology. So should students today immerse themselves in acquiring the technical skills — computer programming, to be specific — that will make them highly sought after professionals? Should students stop studying history, anthropology, philosophy, literature, political science and similar “liberal arts” or “humanities” subjects? His answer is an emphatic ‘No.’ Using examples of successful entrepreneurs and innovators with a liberal arts education, he makes the case that it is precisely a strong grounding in a broad spectrum of subjects that will equip the students with the ability to see the big picture and imagine innovations. A couple of Pakistanis from non-technical backgrounds who launch a successful logistics start-up and an American who majored in theatre arts and launched a healthtech startup are the examples the author details early on to give us a flavour of the variety of people launching successful startups. Using examples of a senior executive at Palantir Technologies, an analyst with the US military, and others who are startup founders -- often these Americans are of Indian origin, a country where the author worked for a few years before entering the world of Silicon Valley venture capital — Hartley shows how these people have succeeded precisely because of their liberal arts education.

Georgia Nugent says it best in an article for Fast Company that Hartley has quoted: “It’s a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task. We are doing a disservice to our young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.”

You could be a writer interviewing American presidents one day and turn into an Amazon delivery guy ten years later.

“In our ever faster changing world,” Hartley writes, “the demand for intellectual agility, creativity, and the curiosity to explore new terrain is higher than ever.” A liberal arts education exposes students to a “broad range of knowledge and ways of thinking.” He adds that it is about “learning to learn, and to love learning.”

Will Indian parents who push their kids towards careers in engineering and medicine be persuaded by Hartley’s passionate defence of the value of a liberal education? He makes a strong case for it when he writes: “It is both about intellectual adventure and about building the fundamental intellectual skills that equip one to continue to pursue new interests for the rest of one’s life, whether or not you have a formal education in those pursuits. These fundamental skills — critical thinking, reading comprehension, logical analysis, argumentation, clear and persuasive communication — also prepare students very well for work life.”

According to studies by LinkedIn and others, while employers believe a liberal arts education ‘is the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy’, data shows that liberal arts grads are joining the tech workforce more rapidly than technical grads. ‘Between 2010 and 2013, the growth of liberal arts majors entering the technology industry from undergrad outpaced that of computer science and engineering majors by 10 per cent.’

Scott Hartley ( Courtesy the publisher )

Google once hired a philosophy professor from Columbia. “The technology issues facing us today — issues of identity, communication, privacy, regulation — require a humanistic perspective if we are to deal with them adequately… Getting a humanities PhD is the most deterministic path you can find to becoming exceptional in the industry,” says Damon Horowitz. “It is no longer just engineers who dominate our technology leadership, because it is no longer the case that computers are so mysterious that only engineers can understand what they are capable of. There is an industry-wide shift toward more ‘product thinking’ in leadership — leaders who understand the social and cultural contexts in which our technologies are deployed.’

The author offers the example of Rishi Jaitley — who headed Twitter India for a while — as the kind of intellectually flexible person with a diverse educational background who sees a meteoric rise in their careers. Innovators in education are making use of ‘blended learning’ where the focus is on ‘learning-by-doing’ rather than ‘memorizing information and reciting it in tests.’ Sugat Mitra’s innovations in education offer one more example.

In summary, Hartley notes the need to prepare India’s tens of millions of students for a post-industrial, globalized world that “requires more than excellence in technology and science.” And he adds that “while some of the newer universities such as Ashoka, Azim Premji, and Shiv Nadir (sic) University have softened attitudes around career preparation, there is still a nagging belief that the humanities are either a luxury or a waste of time.”

The “best engineers,” Hartley writes “are those who are also deeply versed in and passionate about philosophy, psychology, and ethics. They play music, are refined in culture and have a deep sense of their own values.” Hartley was a member of the graduating class at Stanford when Steve Jobs delivered his famous commencement address. He wholeheartedly endorses the Jobsian values of staying hungry and foolish.

Read more: Why liberal arts and the humanities are as important as engineering

“The symbolic systems program brought together courses in computing with ones in philosophy, logic, linguistics, and psychology.” All this will come as a welcome relief for someone who is equally interested in both von Braun’s feats with rockets and von Frisch’s research into bees, someone curious about both Plato and Pauli’s exclusion principle, and someone who finds both Hegel as well as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle interesting. At a young age, most human beings tend to be incredibly curious. It should be the aim of our education systems to foster this innate quality rather than suppress it.

It will take an “Apollo Mission” type of effort to make the necessary changes in existing engineering curricula in India. It would be breathtaking if engineering students pursuing degrees in computer science/IT learned not only about microprocessor architecture but also micro and macroeconomics and architecture or the history of the Second World War and if Python, Ruby, LAMP, Hadoop, Kotlin, Swift and EC2 were combined with Carl Sagan, Oliver Sacks, and Paul Kalanithi. Scott Hartley’s book with its voluminous notes and references at the end spanning 40+ pages would perhaps deserve a place in such an eclectic curriculum.

Sachi Mohanty is an independent writer interested in science and technology.

First Published: Jan 18, 2019 20:56 IST