Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Are we done with the humanities?

Columbia students know the rigor of a liberal arts education. Through the University’s famed Core Curriculum, every Columbia College undergraduate is exposed to the best of history’s literature, philosophy, art and music, from Homer to Dante, Plato to Nietzsche, and everything in between.

In an increasingly technology-driven world, however, the question remains: how far will a humanities-based education get you? In a recent article for TechCrunch, Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, argues that liberal arts sensibilities may be more valuable to the science and technology industries than one might think.

Wadhwa considers arguments from two of the computer industry’s giants—chairman of Microsoft Bill Gates and Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Each man has built a technological empire, but through different philosophies about the type of education needed to get there. While Gates argues that math and science education should be a priority in the interest of job creation, Jobs instead believes that the arts and sciences are codependent, and that the graphic designer who designs iPad apps is just as important as the engineers who develop the technology necessary to use those apps in the first place.

Agreeing with Jobs, Wadhwa writes,

…even though I believe that engineering is one of the most important professions, I have learned that the liberal arts are equally important. It takes artists, musicians, and psychologists working side by side with engineers to build products as elegant as the iPad. And anyone—with education in any field—can achieve success in Silicon Valley.

At Columbia, the Core Curriculum strives to reach a balance between these two areas of study. In addition to its stringent humanities requirements, the Core requires a minimum of two elective science or math related classes, as well as a freshman seminar called “Frontiers of Science” that introduces students to cutting edge developments in scientific fields as disparate as neuroscience and quantum physics. The University also boasts one of the country’s best undergraduate engineering schools, the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. However, for undergraduates in Columbia College, the most popular majors are still humanities-based, including economics, political science and history.

Can Columbia graduates still be competitive in their chosen fields of work, or should the Core require more math and science? Tell us in the comments!

If you’re interested in learning more, you can read the original discussion from the New York Times here, and also look at Columbia’s core requirements.

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