Liberal arts – Technology married with the humanities

When Apple launched its iPad 2 in Silicon Valley in 2011, Steve Jobs stated that “it is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

According to Jobs, the reason behind Apple’s success is thus the combination of technology and the humanities, or liberal arts. But, what does liberal arts really mean and why should we care about it?

Liberal arts is defined as a humanistic tradition of education that focuses on providing students with the appropriate foundation of knowledge across diverse disciplines such as philosophy, literature and mathematics. Liberal arts programs within higher education is founded in America, but the concept originates from Renaissance and Greek education models, as well British models, especially from the universities in Oxford and Cambridge.

Today, liberal arts are often described as something “fuzzy” by society in general, and by technologists in particular. People also like to talk in terms of liberal arts versus STEM, but that is in fact a false dichotomy. As stated above, liberal arts is derived from a humanistic tradition, but the so-called “pure sciences” such as biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics are actually also components of liberal arts.

Students can thus get both humanities and STEM with a liberal arts degree, which the American university landscape clearly illustrates. Almost every American university teach some kind of liberal arts-based curricula, and there are also many colleges that specialize in the tradition. The website of Princeton University states that “a commitment to the liberal arts is at the core of Princeton University’s mission”. The American universities clearly acknowledge the intrinsic value in students exploring different subjects in their undergraduate studies before choosing their major, and the opportunities are endless; “you could major in computer science and earn a certificate in theater”.

Pure liberal arts colleges, in turn, vary in structure and quality, but they are typically small and encourage more student participation and student-teacher interaction than other universities. Swarthmore, outside Philadelphia, is one of the most known liberal arts colleges. A report from Lund University has highlighted the most popular majors of graduates from Swarthmore over the past years, which are the following:

  • Economics (20%)
  • Computer Science (16.7%)
  • Political Science (10.5%)
  • Engineering (9.6%)
  • Biology (9.6%)
  • Mathematics (9.6%).

These statistics of majors of graduates confirm that students actually can study liberal arts and major within STEM.

There are clear connections between an education in liberal arts and many of the revolutionary innovations of the world. In the case of Steve Jobs, he drew inspiration from a single course in calligraphy that he had taken in college when he was designing the typeface for the Macintosh. In his biography, Jobs famously states that: “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.” Jobs has also explained the overall success of Apple with the fact that the company’s employees have different backgrounds and interests, which is also in line with the core values of liberal arts.

We already know that American institutions are leading in producing Nobel prize winners. Something that may not be as well-known is the fact that none other than liberal arts colleges are among the leading American institutions. A study conducted by researchers from Duke University and Michigan State University shows how above-mentioned Swarthmore, and another liberal arts college named Amherst, appear among the top 10 undergraduate institutions in producing Nobel prize winners in the sciences. Thus, looking more closely at liberal arts, the concept does not appear “fuzzy” at all.

Insights on the benefits of liberal arts are spreading around the world, and today nearly forty European institutions have liberal arts-elements in their curricula. In Sweden, the University of Gothenburg has a liberal arts program since 2011, and Uppsala University also offers a liberal arts program on Campus Gotland since 2013 (although the latter has not been enrolling any students since the autumn of 2017).

In the new landscape of start-up companies, it is crucial to find creative solutions and to innovate in ways that are useful for the constantly evolving society. This is where an education in liberal arts can make an important difference.

Want to learn more about liberal arts? Read: The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the liberal arts will rule the digital world By Scott Hartley, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2017. Also read: “An Examination of the Liberal Arts”, a report from the Division of External Relations at the International Office, Lund University.

Agnes Wiberg, intern at the Office of Science and Innovation in Washington D.C.