Liberal Arts in the Age of Robots

The liberal arts and humanities have been declared insignificant, inconsequential, irrelevant, and by some, dead.  Any undergraduates with their wits functioning are coding, considering engineering or figuring out what other areas within STEM warrant exploration.

This is clearly the viewpoint of Vinod Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems and the author of the blog, “Is Majoring in Liberal Arts a Mistake for Students?” Once one gets an engineering degree, a job, stock options, and writes fluent code, then, by all means, go ahead and read a poem. Laszlo Bock, the head of HR at Google, also exhorts all those who want to succeed to become engineers or computer scientists. 

While computer science and engineering opportunities are currently abundant, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal claim current college graduates will likely change careers 15 times in their lives, with 11 career changes before turning 40. 

The future promises accelerating career changes. We are in the era of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics.

The Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan city, China has transformed its factory into a fully automated facility using robotic arms to produce cell phone parts, automated machining equipment, autonomous transport trucks, and an automated warehouse. The staff has fallen from 650 workers to 60, production is up 162%, and the defect rate has plummeted from 25% to below 5%.  Meanwhile, Adidas has announced the pending opening of its fully automated Speedfactory in both Germany and the US in 2017. 

No one is immune to the onslaught of technology; just take a look the BBC ‘Automation Risk’ job list:]. Already there are AI applications, such as Quill, writing corporate reports, and even on the Royal Caribbean’s luxury cruise, there is Shakr Makr, a robotic one-armed bar tender developed at MIT.  

 According to Peter Cappelli, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, preparing students for a specific job, even in engineering, is risky.  It is important to diversify across a variety of job sectors. One way to do this is to try to figure out what any position in the workplace requires.  Employers value dedicated workers who are self-motivated, learn quickly, can teach themselves, and bring knowledge, creativity and insights to their efforts. 

According to Carol Christ, the president of Smith College, the hallmarks of a liberal education are flexibility, creativity, critical thinking and strong communications skills (especially written). A true liberal arts program teaches students to become lifelong learners who have learned how to teach themselves.    

Bradford Hipps in his Opinion Piece in the NY Times on May 21,2016, “To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf,’ references that he was hired by a large technology consulting firm as part of the ‘lunatic fringe of humanities majors.’ After he finished his 6-week programming boot camp, he was cast into software development in which he encountered a complicated program involving subscription and parent accounts. A former music major somehow made the leap and solved the puzzle. On another project involving misdirected pointers, a breakthrough came from a philosophy major visualized a solution.  

A response to Mr. Hipps’s article in Reddit mentioned, “I have an English degree and 25 year career in software engineering. I have worked with and hired dozens of people with non-traditional degrees, and they have disappointed me at about the same rate as those with computer science backgrounds.

Liberal arts programs should do exactly as good of a job of teaching critical thinking, reason and logic as any that is science-based, and it may even be the case that the former do a slightly better job at preparing students to think outside of and challenge the norms and tropes of their professions.”

How one can best train the mind to question, probe and teach itself to create and work in the age of robots is what each of us is after; that alone might warrant keeping the liberal arts alive.