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There is growing anxiety among educators and policy makers that American colleges and universities are not churning out enough science and engineering majors, thereby jeopardizing the economic advantages currently enjoyed by the United States. Gone are the days when university presidents such as Robert Hutchins placed the study of philosophical and literary works at the heart of undergraduate education; now academics are much more likely to recommend (as Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz do in The Race Between Education and Technology) an increased attention to developing technological skills.

But are the humanities really only good for soft skills and vague ideals, like self-realization or civic understanding? Do they provide nothing to our “hard” achievements in science and engineering? A comparative look at undergraduate curricula suggests otherwise, and that the American emphasis on a liberal arts education is key to our success in nurturing innovative thinking among students.

Let me begin by recounting how I came to realize the importance of the humanities not only for cultivating the mind, but also for teaching the profitable art of originality. It was in the context of Stanford University’s obligatory “Introduction to the Humanities” (IHUM) course series for freshmen. Unlike its “Western civ” predecessor, which was the source of so much criticism in the 1960s, IHUM provides a variety of course offerings, ranging from “Ancient Empires” to “Rebellious Daughters and Filial Sons of the Chinese Family.” In the course I teach with my colleagues Robert Harrison and Joshua Landy, “Epic Journeys, Modern Quests,” the students read literary works ranging from Gilgamesh to The Trial, and write a series of papers analyzing the texts along the way.

Speaking with some Chinese students one day before class, they explained to me how they found these writing exercises utterly baffling. “We are supposed to come up with an original thesis?,” they asked. “How are we meant to do that?” Never before had they been encouraged to provide their own interpretation of a text or event. High schools in China focus obsessively on memorization; there is no place in the curriculum for constructing an original argument.

American culture and economy, by contrast, place an almost unrivaled premium on originality: “Invent, invent, invent” was the title of a recent Thomas Friedman column in the Times. The iPhone may be made in China, but, as its packaging proudly declares, it is “Designed in California.” We have exchanged manufacturing for innovation, and seem mostly content with the deal. Rarely do we ask, however, how and where originality is taught. And if we try to answer this question, it becomes clear that humanities courses such as IHUM offer far more opportunities for innovative thinking than most science classes.

To be sure, universities such as Stanford offer seminars in, say, mechanical engineering, in which students are called upon to invent new designs and products. But these courses tend to be reserved for upper-level students. While science educators are beginning to emphasize the importance of problem-solving courses at the entry level, the purpose of most basic math or science classes is not to encourage originality. If you take a calculus exam and get the same answers as 50 other students in the class, you may well get an A. If your essay thesis for a history course is the same as 50 other students in the class, you most likely will not.

The point here is a simple one: humanities courses provide students with lessons in innovation from day one. Good professors model original thinking for their students in their lectures, which is one of the reasons that research and teaching can be mutually beneficial. Students in turn learn how to examine topics under new light. Whether they go on to become software engineers, surgeons, or physicists, this primary training in innovative thought will help them imagine, invent, and create the world of the future. The modest undergraduate essay on Euripides’ Iphigenia requires the same conceptual skill-set as does devising a new medical procedure, constructing a different architectural schema, or coming up with a creative business model.

University administrators are quick to recognize the importance of creative thinking in academic curricula, but too often assume that creativity is found only in the arts. In fact, if the arts offer more opportunities for creative expression, the humanities can provide a better forum for reflecting on innovative processes, and by extension, a better chance to apply these lessons in other fields. This is not to suggest that the arts fail to live up to their pedagogical promises, but rather that the humanities offer a critical supplement.

When we consider the future of American higher education, therefore, we would do well to remember that a long-standing attachment to a liberal arts education has contributed in no small way to its great renown. Why is it, after all, that students from around the world dream of studying in the land of Apple and Google, when such a large chunk of our curricula is dedicated to reading Aristotle and Goethe?

The United States is in fact one of very few countries where college students continue to receive a general education. After graduating from high school, French students dedicate themselves immediately to the study of law, medicine, biochemistry, or another narrow specialization; the same holds true for English, German, Swiss, Italian, and most other European students. In the United Kingdom, specialization begins around the age of 15-16; after that, students usually only pursue three disciplines, often within a single area (e.g. the humanities or sciences). This important difference means that American universities are quite unique in their insistence that all undergraduates receive a humanistic education.

Alumni of American universities do not seem to find that their time reading Jane Austen or Alexis de Tocqueville was in vain. Entrepreneurs, for instance, emphasize the importance of a liberal arts education for business: “Entrepreneurship is a philosophy. It’s a way of looking at the world,” the venture capitalist Randy Komisar recently told, adding how it “dovetails nicely with a liberal arts education.” Even academics are insisting on the parallel: as Mary Godwyn of Babson College wrote in Academe, “Entrepreneurship is a tangible, practical manifestation of a liberal arts sensibility.” Steve Jobs famously dropped out of Reed College, but recalled in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford how a course in Asian calligraphy transformed his vision of fonts and text.

The thought that students in a Shakespeare class might read The Merchant of Venice for insights on investment banking rightly sends shivers down every English professor’s back. Rather than consider how we need to “integrate liberal arts and entrepreneurship courses,” as Godwyn suggests, it bears emphasizing the benefits provided by the liberal arts tout court. The fundamental activity that lies at the heart of humanistic studies is practical enough. If business, medicine, and engineering professors see it fit to incorporate literary or philosophical material in their syllabi, so much the better; but we would lose many of the other, more intangible values of the humanities if we reduce them to mere “how-to” studies.

This is not to say that professors and researchers in the humanities cannot retool their pedagogical and scholarly strategies in order to convey the excitement and passion of, say, the French Revolution to students who yawn at the mention of a pre-Facebook age. Indeed, as university presses become anemic, now is a good time to rethink the whole disciplinary pressures on specialization, which often translate into writing for a choir of a dozen faithful. No doubt we should aspire more to becoming “conversational critics,” in Adam Gopnik’s phrase. But equally important is the need for university administrators, policy makers, and cultural commentators, to recognize the important work already being done in freshmen seminars and writing classes in the humanities.

There are many steps from Iphigenia to the iPhone, but fostering an innovative, thoughtful, and humanistic environment is the first.

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