Liberal arts and more professional academic pursuits are both vital

Nicholas Kristof, in his opinion piece “Starving for wisdom” in today’s NYTImes, puts forward an argument that both liberal arts and more technical or professional pursuits can “enrich our souls and sometimes even our pocketbooks as well. I’ll summarize his three main points here:

  1. The humanities give its students valuable communications and interpersonal skills.
  2. The study of the humanities helps its students come to better public policy decisions.
  3. Knowledge of the humanities improves our emotional intelligence.

His overall conclusion:

In short, it makes eminent sense to study coding and statistics today, but also history and literature.

My undergraduate degree comes from a small liberal arts institution; my masters in business comes from a business school that has made its name with its engineering graduates; my PhD comes from a business school at an Ivy League institution; my first position was at a business school at a large research university; my second position was at a small residential business school. I have seen all kinds of students at all kinds of institutions and they all seem to work.

However, I am glad that I have a liberal arts education. When I was an undergrad, I can’t tell you that I was happy that I was in all of those required classes; however, as an old man I can tell you that the breadth of that education has helped me in innumerable areas — analytic skills, my interest in astronomy and art and classical music and philosophy and history and nutrition and physiology, ability to contribute to public policy discussions, and so on. I’m not so sure that it helped me get a job, but it prepared me for life, for a full and interesting life.

I am also glad that I also received more technical training as well. I benefitted from classes in micro and macroeconomics, computer science (FORTRAN77!), accounting, finance, marketing, operations research, artificial intelligence, and many others. These have been incredibly valuable in my professional life. But if that’s all I knew, all that I was exposed to, I wouldn’t have had such rich life.

When thinking about what a student (maybe your child) or all students (for policy makers) should take in college, let us not forget that college should not be looked at only as a technical school or job preparation school. It is four (or five or more) years that a person can use to grow, to mature, to prepare for life, to learn about the diversity of people and problems in this world. A job is part of that, but it is not the only part, or the only part that matters.