Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

No longer useless: Liberal arts education in a digital age

By Catherine Ceniza Choy

Last week, two on-line articles published on the same day, July 29th, in Forbes Magazine caught my attention. The first, entitled “America’s Top Colleges Ranking 2015,” by Forbes staff writer Caroline Howard, opened with the following: “The No. 1 FORBES Top College 2015 is Pomona College, followed by Williams College and Stanford University.”*

The second Forbes article by contributor George Anders had the catchy and provocative title, “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket.” It highlighted the meteoric rise of Slack Technologies, a computer software company whose mission is to make your collaborative work less complicated and more productive by organizing your team’s communication in one place. In less than two years, the company boasts 1.1 million users and a $2.8 billion private market valuation.

After capturing readers’ attention with these enviable figures, the article credited Slack editorial director Anna Pickard for some of the startup’s most original innovations. Thirty-eight year-old Pickard’s training is in the performing arts (yes, the arts). She earned a theatre degree from Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University. After a slew of unsuccessful auditions, she dabbled in blogging and videogame writing before getting involved in the tech world. She writes “zany” replies to Slack users and aims to provide them with “extra bits of surprise and delight.”

So what can you do with a theatre degree? Apparently, you can engage the masses with witty and quirky writing while making good pay and extraordinary stock options. I do not know Anna Pickard personally, but I admire her roundabout path to financial success.

I loved both of these stories a great deal.

I first learned of the Forbes Top Colleges 2015 list from scrolling my daily LinkedIn updates. I follow Pomona College because I am a proud alumnus of the Class of 1991. I know that rankings come and go. And you can find a spectrum of opinions about the merits of such lists including outright condemnation and dismissal. I don’t need a high ranking to fuel my Sagehen pride. Rather I’m happy for Pomona College, a small liberal arts college in Claremont, Calif. that is often overshadowed by larger universities and New England small liberal arts colleges, for the national recognition it has received, a recognition that I, as well as many other alumni, already knew was well-deserved.

More important, however, I loved reading both articles because they emphasized two common points: First, liberal arts education matters. Second, it is indispensable training for life and work in a digital age.

I greatly appreciate Forbes’ recognition of a liberal arts education at this moment in time, because its value seems to be misunderstood by some policymakers and the general public. We are living in an age of STEM education values. By this I mean an overarching concern about or demand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at the expense of a well-rounded education, and the equation of STEM education with usefulness and worthiness. Sadly, concomitant with STEM’s rise has been the devaluation of the humanities.

A reader of my LinkedIn posts asked me how I was able to develop my voice and my confidence as a writer. There is no shorthand answer or aha moment to this question for me, but college was undoubtedly a formative time. The development of research and writing skills were at the core of my liberal arts education. Research and writing were requirements for almost every single course that I took as an undergraduate at Pomona College.

For many people, small liberal arts colleges smack of elitism and entitlement. On one level, I can see why some may think that way, but, in my experience, the notion is more of a stereotype than a lived reality. Pomona College faculty did not indulge me with endless encouragement and praise about my writing. When I wrote something they thought was good, they told me so matter-of-factly. When I wrote something that was not as good, they also told me so matter-of-factly.

My most indelible memories are of these criticisms: “You’re writing style slipped a bit in the last essay,” and “You didn’t do so well on the research paper. Perhaps we should have talked about it some more.” I remember these critiques, but not because they hurt. On the contrary, it was because I realized that these professors had high standards, I appreciated that they had actually read what I wrote, and I admired their direct, yet still kind, honesty about what they thought. I’m grateful that they cared enough to criticize as well as commend. Today, my research and writing are not solely the source of my livelihood, but they are key components of what I consider to be a meaningful life.

If you want further evidence of the value of a liberal arts education in our digital age, the perspective of Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s 42-year-old cofounder and CEO, whose estimated stake in the company might be worth $300 million, is illuminating. According to Anders’ article, Butterfield is the “proud holder of an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science.” Butterfield says this about his liberal arts education:

“Studying philosophy taught me two things . . . I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”

Butterfield’s statement reaffirms the broader message of Forbes’ 2015 college rankings: in the 21st century, a liberal arts education is more relevant than ever.

*This blog post is cross-posted from LinkedIn Pulse. In Forbes' "Top Colleges Ranking 2015," UC Berkeley is the highest ranking public school.