In 1987, the U.S. Army War College developed a term to understand the end of the Cold War and that has defined our world since: VUCA, short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
Our politics are more fractured and divisive—corrosive really—than ever. Our economy is a roller-coaster. And our place in the world is unsettled. We need to think about how to deal with this mess and, at the same time, to education a new generation that is resourceful, engaged and adaptable. Fortunately, there is a path forward and that path involves a reimagination of the arts and sciences. You know, the liberal arts.
First, we have to get over all the negativity out there. Our politicians, many of them with liberal arts degrees themselves have long bashed the liberal arts. President Obama once said “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” Mitt Romney scoffed that “as an English major your options are uh, you better go to graduate school, all right? And find a job from there.”
Their cynicism comes as higher education has turned towards vocational education, i.e. job training. Too many politicians now see college as a training program for under- and unemployed workers on the low end, and for developing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers on the high end. Either way it’s a technical education. And this framing has affected how parents and high school students look at college, as too many see majors as advanced vocational training.
But that’s a mistake, and tech leaders know it. As Intuit’s Alex Chris explains, this “’STEM only’ mindset is misguided because it focuses narrowly on job preparation. It assumes that the rise in advanced technology in the workplace means most career opportunities will be those requiring highly technical skills, and students should therefore focus their studies vocationally.”
The reality is we need the social and critical communication skills that are best honed in the liberal arts. According to the Harvard Business Review, while technical skills are important, “What matters now is not the skills you have but how you think. Can you ask the right questions? Do you know what problem you’re trying to solve in the first place?” They remind us there is a “long list of successful tech leaders who hold degrees in the humanities. To mention just a few CEOs: Stewart Butterfield, Slack, philosophy; Jack Ma, Alibaba, English; Susan Wojcicki, YouTube, history and literature; Brian Chesky, Airbnb, fine arts.” Forbes recently declared “That 'Useless' Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech's Hottest Ticket” as the industry has finally come around to what many professional associations have understood for a decade or so: the value in the arts and sciences.
They’re figuring it out a decade after the National Academy of Engineering recognized the need for the liberal arts, stating “New graduates were technically well prepared but lacked the professional skills for success in a competitive, innovative, global marketplace. Employers complained that new hires had poor communication and teamwork skills and did not appreciate the social and nontechnical influences on engineering solutions and quality processes.”
When the World Economic Forum surveyed 350 top executives from nine leading industries about the skills necessary for business success for its study of The Future of Jobs amidst the fourth industrial revolution, the ten essential ones were complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision making, service orientation, negotiation skills, and cognitive flexibility.
In brief, the skills necessary for business success are rooted in the liberal arts and best obtained through an education in it, rather than technical training or technical training with a small sprinkling of liberal arts. There is a reason why so many Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts-degrees and that is because the liberal arts alone provides the basis for leadership, lifelong learning, and a meaningful life.
It’s time politicians and others recognize that the liberal arts are not some stagnant relic of the 18th century. Over the past two decades, the arts and sciences have embraced technologies and new pedagogies. They have adapted to the marketplace, preserving the skills that are at their center, but modernizing how we teach them and engage students. Today’s English, Philosophy, Chemistry, or Art History majors have imbibed the critical thinking and communication skills prized in the new economy. Many have curated their educations to include foreign language and travel, internships, research activities, and even second majors and minors. They have developed the flexibility to think quickly, to read social situations, culture and context, and to continually learn and improve.
The liberal arts might just be the remedy to a world defined by VUCA.