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Could the tech industry’s future lie in the liberal arts?



Tom Hoopes - published on 08/07/17

Tech CEOs are discovering that beyond algorithms lies a humanity that continually evolves and needs to be understood.

You can find it lurking in the background of bestsellers about everything from sports to politics — but technology industry leaders are also willing to say it out loud: Employers, increasingly, want liberal arts graduates.

“As a former philosophy professor, and after 20 years of hiring teams at technology companies, the value of a liberal arts education in tech is obvious to me,” John P. Kelly, CEO of Machina Software, told me.

You need technical skills, certainly, he said, but those are often learned on the job. “A liberal arts education goes further: it enables one to develop and communicate new ideas, which are the lifeblood of tech companies.”

It’s a phenomenon you can see in the background of two recent bestsellers: The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci and Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen.

Verducci tells the story of how Chicago Cubs (and former Boston Red Sox) manager Theo Epstein took the statistics-crunching approach to baseball described in Moneyball and added a human element that powered two teams to historic World Series wins.

Epstein’s baseball management formula in the book might be expressed like this:

High level math knowledge + high level people knowledge  = epic success.

The Clinton campaign formula that emerges in Shattered would look like this:

High level math – high level people knowledge  = epic failure.

Among the many factors Shattered cites in Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss in November, one looms large.

“Hillary’s belief that her younger generation of organizers and data scientists understood the math and mechanics of winning prevailed over her doubts about strategy and tactics,” write the authors. “It was as if victory hinged solely on painting by the numbers revealed through analytics.”

She found out the hard way that understanding numbers is important, but understanding human beings is crucial.

The tech industry knows this now. “Liberal Arts Majors Are the Future of the Tech Industry,” said a recent Harvard Business Review article. It cites three new books that make the case:

Nick Christie, Senior Financial Advisor at Investmark Advisory Group in Stanford, Connecticut, told me that this has always been true.

“Our Founding Fathers, who were steeped in a classical liberal arts education, had a much greater understanding of the relationship between the technical economic issues facing the day,” he said.

As it was in the past, so shall it be in the future.

The Business Insider earlier this year quoted  Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban saying, “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data.”

A panel of business school deans made the same prediction recently in The Atlantic. When it comes time to pick CEOs, said the Aspen Institute’s Judy Samuelson, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad.”

To meet the new need, business schools are adding liberal-arts components, the magazine reported.

Catholic colleges have known this for years.

At Benedictine College, School of Business chairman Dr. Michael King retooled the curriculum to require philosophical ethics and moral theology — and a capstone seminar that applies both to real-world business practices.

“I’m a believer that the foundation of an excellent life is the ability to think well and express yourself clearly,” he said. “The liberal arts is what gives you that. It’s an important foundation for business students to be successful and to live an excellent life.”

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