Technology Can Help Save the Liberal Arts

August 14, 2014

A rash of articles proclaiming the death of the humanities has been dominating the higher education press for the last couple years. Whether it’s The New York Times, The New Republic or The Atlantic, the core narrative seems to be that liberal arts education will be disrupted by technology, it’s just a question of time, and resistance is futile.  But I am convinced that not only is the “death of the humanities at the hands of technology” being wildly exaggerated, it’s directionally wrong.

This month on Inside Higher Ed, William Major wrote an essay, “Close the Business Schools/Save the Humanities”.  I loved it for its provocative frame, and because I’m a strong proponent of the humanities. But it positioned business and humanities as an either/or proposition, and it doesn’t have to be so.  

If John Adams were alive today, he might revise his famous quote:

I [will start with the] study politics and war... then mathematics and philosophy… [then] natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture [in order to give myself a right] to study painting, poetry, music.

What would take generations in Adams’s day can be done in a single lifetime today because of technology.

Full disclosure: I was Clay Christensen’s research assistant at Harvard Business School, and am now CEO of a Silicon Valley-based technology company that sells a Learning Relationship Management product to schools and companies.

Perhaps the above might be considered three strikes against me in a debate on the humanities -- perhaps I’m already out in the minds of many readers, but I hope not. Please hear me out.

I think that technology will actually enhance liberal arts education, and eventually lead to a renaissance in the humanities, from literature to philosophy, music, history, and rhetoric. Not only will technology improve the learning experience, it will dramatically increase the number of students engaging in liberal education by broadening consumption of the humanities from school-age students alone to a global market of 7 billion people.

It might be overstating the case to say that this will happen, but it can happen if those of us who care about the humanities act to make it so. To do so, we need to accept one hard fact and make two important strategic moves.

The hard fact is that despite its importance, economic value is the wrong way to think about  the liberal arts -- and the sooner we accept that reality, the sooner we can stop arguing for the humanities from a position of weakness and instead move on with a good strategy to save them.

Of course, it should be noted that there is certainly considerable economic value in attending elite and selective colleges, from Colgate to Whittier to Morehouse. The currency of that economic value is the network of alumni, the talent signal that admission to and graduation from such institutions confer, and the friendships formed over years of close association with bright and motivated people. But the economic value accrues regardless of what the people study, whether it is humanities or engineering or business.  

Moreover, the effort to tie the humanities to economic outcomes cheapens the non-economic value of the humanities. Embracing their perceived lack of economic value allows us to be affirmative about the two things that technology can do to save them: (1) supplementing liberal arts with career-focused education and (2) defining the non-economic value of liberal arts so that we can extend its delivery to those who make more vocational choices for college.

Supplementing the liberal arts with career-focused education such as a fifth-year practical master’s degree, micro-credentials, minors and applied experience is critical to their survival. It doesn’t matter whether the supplements are home-grown or built in partnership with companies like Koru or approaches like Udacity’s Nanodegrees.  What matters is that your students see a way both to study what they love and to build a competitive advantage to pursue a meaningful career.  

The right technology can be a major part of conferring that advantage by helping students to figure out their long-term career ambitions, connect with mentors in industry, consume career-oriented content, earn credentials, and do economically valuable work to prove their abilities.

But the true promise of technology to save the liberal arts is precisely its ability to lower the cost of delivery -- and in so doing to allow everyone on earth to partake in a liberal education throughout their lifetime. Students shouldn’t have to choose between philosophy and engineering, music and business, rhetoric and marketing.  And by lowering the costs, you enable increased consumption -- that is the very nature of disruptive innovations.

Given that my education in economics and business leaves me woefully inadequate to the task of defining the non-economic value of liberal arts, I’ll leave that task to John F Kennedy instead, who said:

“[Economic value] does not allow for the health of our children...or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

It is for those things that do make life worthwhile that the liberal arts must be saved.


Gunnar Counselman is the founder and CEO of Fidelis.

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