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The Daily Need

Is a liberal arts degree worth it?

With debt from student loans nearing or, by some accounts, surpassing the amount of debt from credit cards in 2011, there’s been a lot of talk lately about whether a traditional liberal arts education is worth the cost. The 20-somethings who fill the ranks of the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, have been ridiculed for their gold-plated fine arts degrees, which can cost as much as $100,000. Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, has derided public funding for anthropology and other humanities disciplines as a waste of taxpayer money. “I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state,” Scott said in a radio interview earlier this month.

Very few people would disagree with the notion that government should invest more in what are known as the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. Given that traditional jobs in processing, sales, marketing and other types of back-office operations are either being out-sourced or replaced by technology, it would certainly seem beneficial for Americans to become more familiar with the sciences. Research on the quantitative value of a liberal arts degree is mixed — some studies say engineers earn a lot more money, others say the difference evens out over the long run — but at the very least, knowing how new technologies like Siri work can only be a plus on your resume.

That said, several experts are pushing back on the idea that diverting public funds from the liberal arts to science and engineering departments will make America more competitive in the long run. Michael Crow, a science policy analyst and president of Arizona State University, wrote in Slate last week that the role of public universities should not be purely vocational.

“The objective of public universities should not be to produce predetermined numbers of particular types of majors but, rather, to focus on how to produce individuals who are capable of learning anything over the course of their lifetimes,” Crow wrote. “Every college student should acquire thorough literacy in science and technology as well as the humanities and social sciences.”

In support of his argument, Crow offered an interesting hypothetical: “Inspired engineering, in other words, could come as a consequence of familiarity with the development of counterpoint in Baroque music or cell biology. Or even the construction methods of indigenous tribes.” To the educational pragmatist, this scenario might seem far-fetched. How might a background in polyphonic melodies inform the design of, say, a bridge or aqueduct? If Scott or any other jobs-minded governor is looking for ways to cut the fat out of the public education system, the study of melodic counterpoints in post-Renaissance music would seem to be a prime candidate for the chopping block.

Except some of our most revered, influential innovators — and, not incidentally, job creators — took their inspiration from disciplines that are arguably even more obscure than music. Steve Jobs, who was neither a computer programmer nor a hardware engineer, famously told graduates of Stanford University in 2005 that one of the most influential and lasting experiences in his brief tenure at Reed College was his dabbling in calligraphy.

“It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating,” Jobs said. “None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life.” Ten years later, his knowledge of serif and sans serif typefaces came rushing back to him as he designed the first Mac. If he had never dropped in on that calligraphy class, Jobs said, “personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.”

Jobs also famously spent seven months after dropping out from Reed trekking across India on a spiritual journey. Walter Isaacson, his biographer, recalled in a recent interview with “60 Minutes” what Jobs said when he returned from India: “The main thing I’ve learned is intuition, that the people in India are not just pure rational thinkers, that the great spiritual ones also have intuition.”

India, of course, is now regarded, along with China, as one of our main upstart competitors, training mass numbers of engineers and computer programmers who will soon usurp American workers on the world stage. If, according to one of our most honored, iconic businessmen, intuition is among Indians’ greatest professional strengths, should Americans cultivate intuition as well?

That question, of course, raises another: How does one cultivate intuition? It’s a nebulous quality, perhaps as much nature as nurture. But a good place to start might be a strong liberal arts education — with roots in philosophy and the study of literature, for example — that teaches students how to be creative, critical thinkers, gives them a broad base of historical knowledge to rely upon when solving problems and, as Crow argues, equips them with the tools to continue assimilating new knowledge throughout the courses of their lives.

After all, advocates of the humanities argue, it’s precisely because technology is fundamentally transforming our world that we should teach students to be broad systematic thinkers capable of absorbing the bounties of knowledge that arise from new wellsprings of discovery in fields like genetics, artificial intelligence and robotics. Plus, once artificially intelligent machines like Watson take over jobs in even advanced fields, like medicine, the jobs that will remain will require creativity and problem-solving, not just the rote memorization of specialized knowledge or proficiency in technical skills.

Certainly, we should all become more acquainted with the sciences. Understanding how artificial intelligence works, for example, will be fundamental to succeeding in the next economy. When Siri replaces the personal assistant, being able to work with Siri might be a good skill for a job seeker to have. But Jobs, the man who created Siri, took his inspiration for the sleek design of his products from the importance of simplicity in Buddhism. Perhaps a curriculum designed to create the next Steve Jobs would combine courses in software engineering and business administration with, say, a seminar in eastern philosophy.

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