In Our High-Tech World, Are the Liberal Arts Dead?


Jason Shellen vividly remembers the moment when his life changed.

He had transferred to Saint Mary’s to pursue a degree in art and on a whim, he signed up for a Jan Term class in web publishing.

Suddenly, he realized that this new technology could open up a vast audience for his art and his ideas. After he graduated in 1996, he put his newfound web design skills to work to help develop a digital publishing technology that gave millions of other people a greater voice; it was called Blogger. Later, he went on to help develop Google Reader, AOL’s instant messaging technology and a string of other digital start-ups.

“That one class I took at Saint Mary’s opened all these doors,” Shellen said.

In a way, Shellen’s journey is emblematic of the way technology has changed all our lives. And though we may not all be digital entrepreneurs, technology has so permeated our acts and thoughts that it’s almost impossible to think of life in the 21st century without it, from e-mail to the Internet and online shopping to social media.

Questions About the Value of Education

But our love affair with all things digital—and the vicissitudes of the Great Recession—has also led a growing legion of commentators to question the value of a traditional liberal arts education.

A new book by William Bennett, secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, called Is College Worth It? made waves this year by suggesting that more Americans should study science, technology, engineering and math instead of what he calls “irrelevant” subjects. Meanwhile, the web is full of stories about “The Best Majors for a High-Paying Job,” and the White House is pushing a plan to tie government aid for higher education to data on graduation rates and job placements. Some are even predicting the end of college as we know it.

But in the midst of all this emphasis on education as a prerequisite for a job, some writers and educators are beginning to raise the alarm about the notion of abandoning our educational traditions—particularly the liberal arts—in favor of a more vocational mission.

As Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University and author of the recent book, College: What It Was, Is and Should Be, wrote in the New York Times recently, “In striving to ‘prove their worth,’ America’s colleges risk losing their value as places young people enter as adventurous adolescents and from which they emerge as intellectually curious adults. Such a loss could never be compensated by any gain.”

Liberal Arts Inspire SMC High-Tech Alumni

Interestingly, Saint Mary’s graduates who are actually working in high-tech companies appear to particularly value the liberal arts tradition they encountered at the College. 

In fact, Shellen, the art student-turned-tech entrepreneur, says it isn’t web publishing skills that led to his success so much as an entrepreneurial spirit and the habits of mind he acquired at Saint Mary’s. “What really helped me was learning the critical thinking, being able to look at a problem from all angles,” he said. “Problems in business are usually human problems, not product problems,” he continued, adding that “as students of the human condition,” Saint Mary’s graduates should have “a very good road map” to that terrain.

High-tech 2

Shellen was among a number of high-tech wunderkind who returned to Saint Mary’s recently to take part in the Communication Department Leadership Speaker Series organized by Communication Professor Father Michael Russo.

"Problems in business are usually human problems. Not product problems." - Jason Shellen

One of the speakers was Brandi Narvaez, who earned an M.B.A. at Saint Mary’s in 2006 and is now chief operating officer of medical software provider Aventura Corp. For her, the College’s broad approach to education was a big draw. “I wanted to be a generalist,” she said. “Having that breadth of vision has really helped me in marketing.”

And Brandon Pierce, another tech veteran, credited the crucible of Seminar and SMC’s Lasallian tradition for paving the way to his success. Pierce graduated in 1993 with majors in communication and history, and has since held senior sales executive positions at Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook, where he’s now director of mobile partnerships. “The foundation that I got at Saint Mary’s is something that I have today—the confidence to be able to think for myself and put ideas forth in a manner that is both collaborative and ethical,” he said.

When these innovators speak of high tech, what seems to energize them most is not the next iteration of code but a larger vision of a world united through technology. Although they concede that there are dangers to such a world, as demonstrated by recent surveillance revelations, they see more promise than peril in the road ahead.

The greatest illustration of democracy in the world is access to information and the ability to have a voice, Pierce said. “Technology is going to make the world smaller. It’s going to give everyone a voice and an ability to share ideas, and that has profound impact on the future that we want to live in.”

An Information Explosion

Indeed, as surely as Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the printing press unlocked knowledge long held by the Church and offered it to the masses, fueling an explosion of creativity in the Renaissance, digital technology has led to an enormous democratization of knowledge. About 2.4 billion of the world’s seven billion people regularly use the Internet, according to Forrester Research, including as many as 85 percent of all North Americans. And we’re just at the beginning of this revolution.

"It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing." - Steve Jobs

Tech4As Ed Tywoniak, chair of Saint Mary’s Communication Department, notes, such a staggering increase in access to knowledge is bound to impact educational institutions and views on the value of the liberal arts.

“All great paradigm shifts happen at the clash of large-scale historical shifts. What we’re seeing is the destruction of the 20th-century model of understanding the world and this new 21st-century paradigm emerging. It's very exciting,” he said.

However, he also believes strongly that the liberal arts, particularly as embodied in Saint Mary’s curriculum, have an essential role in our tech-centered world. After all, as paradigm-shaking as technology is, it’s still just the conduit; the ideas and values that flow through it are the electricity that runs our world. And those ideas and values are embedded in the liberal arts.

“Saint Mary’s is the inheritor of a very rich tradition that began several thousand years ago with the flowering of the Golden Age of Greece and was kept alive for several thousand years through the Catholic Intellectual Tradition,” Tywoniak said. The fruits of that liberal arts tradition are shared inquiry, which teaches collaborative learning, and critical thinking skills, which allow people to be lifelong learners.

“In the modern technical industry, that’s exactly the kind of person they want,” he said, “someone who’s a quick study, can adapt quickly, and who also can work in a team.”

Employers Value the Liberal Arts

Employers seem to agree. In a survey released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2013, a full 80 percent of employers agreed that, “regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences,” and that a job candidate’s “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”

Beyond that, every field, including technology, needs people with vision who can dream of the next Apple or Amazon or Google, and the liberal arts are a great breeding ground for such vision, as Apple founder Steve Jobs once acknowledged when he said: “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”

Advocacy groups are beginning to rise up to spread the word about the liberal arts. Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP) released an Employer-Educator Compact last year, signed by 160 prominent employers and 107 college presidents who promised to promote public understanding of the importance of a “21st-century liberal arts education” that fosters “broad and adaptive learning, personal and social responsibility, and intellectual skills.” They also pledged to promote greater access to education, expand hands-on and applied learning, and advocate for “college as a path to both career success and civic responsibility.”

Their well-publicized action served as a reminder that the value of a liberal arts education extends far beyond job skills. After all, it is not the business of education to simply churn out cogs in the wheel of commerce. As Thomas Jefferson said, a flourishing democracy depends on an educated electorate.

A Goal Beyond Knowledge

And the purpose of an education is not just knowledge, of the sort that can be found in an Internet search, but understanding, and, beyond that, truth. Cardinal John Henry Newman stated that message eloquently in The Idea of a University—a seminal work that informs Catholic higher education worldwide—when he wrote that it “educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.”

In our technological age, with its barrage of information and endless opportunities for interconnection and action, that liberal arts perspective may be essential.

Steve Woolpert, dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Saint Mary’s, astutely points out: “The liberal arts remind us that we choose the nature of technologies; they don’t choose us.” Instead of abandoning the liberal arts, he says, we need them more than ever to “explore ways that digital technologies can better facilitate human engagement for the common good.”

That doesn’t mean turning our backs on technology but combining the best of the liberal arts tradition and the opportunities created by technology. As Steve Jobs once said, “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

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