Renaissance Futurism: Liberal Arts for the 21st Century


There is a lot of debate about whether college is worth the investment, and many discount the value of a liberal arts degree at any price. While professional or pre-professional degrees, such as business or pre-law, often lead to high starting salaries, a January 2014 analysis of census data reports that “at peak earnings ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2,000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields.”

For success in the Second Machine Age, students would be well served to seek a liberal arts foundation coupled with 21st century skills. Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University and my employer, believes combining a liberal arts background with methods from domains such as analytics, statistics, and coding provides students with “a more expansive skill set that integrates both broad-based concepts and technical, quantitative content, leading to the deeper learning of each.” A successful graduate will be able to blend both sets of skills, enabling them to build on their foundation of knowledge even as new technologies and tools make their initial training obsolete.

In his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education, Fareed Zakaria argues that promoting interdisciplinarity will invigorate both the humanities and STEM fields. Hybrid programs that integrate STEM into the liberal arts, such as MIT’s program in Art, Culture, and Technology, are one of the best ways to promote this fusion, because they require their graduates to be skilled in approaching a problem from multiple angles.

Employers may seem to value work experience over knowledge, but the word “skill” is actually derived from the Old English word scele, “knowledge,” which in turn comes from the Old Norse word skil, “discernment, knowledge.” Skill and knowledge are two sides of the same coin, and skills are simply the application of knowledge to specific problems. Skills can be gained through education or experience, but it is difficult to acquire broad context through experience alone. Acquiring this context has been the historical purpose of higher education, and it has traditionally included a survey of math, natural and physical science (biology, chemistry, physics), social science (psychology, sociology, economics), and humanities (history, languages, philosophy, logic)—in other words, the “liberal arts.”

A clear example of how the market values both education and experience can be seen in the legal profession. Partners at top law firms bill their time at over $1,000 per hour; and first-year attorneys can make $160,000 base salaries. Yet, according to the New York Times, “about 20 percent of law graduates from 2010 are working at jobs that do not require a law license…and only 40 percent are working in law firms, compared with 60 percent from the class a decade earlier.” Demand for legal services has shifted to a bimodal distribution: corporate clients are willing to pay top dollar for lawyers with specialized knowledge and skills, but routine services have become commoditized thanks to technology and low cost service providers abroad.

The fact that technology is eating the legal industry isn’t news. Famed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen says that software will eat the world. By that logic, at some point software will even eat software. TechCrunch recently ran a piece titled “APIs Are The New FTEs” illustrating the new universal rule: Unless you can transcend technology and apply context, you will be replaced with technology. Everyone has the capacity to be a participant in the knowledge economy and it requires both skills and knowledge. The combination of being fluent in technology and understanding how to use that fluency to shape experiences is what sets humans apart from software.

George Anders writes in Forbes:

Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger. Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers–and make progress seem pleasant.

Case in point: I recently hired Juliana Lebowitz, a classical and ancient studies major from McGill University, who transitioned seamlessly from Cicero to startups. On the value of her liberal arts degree, Juliana said, “My seemingly irrelevant degree has given me the tools to excel in my post-college job in marketing and customer support. I know how to tailor a product pitch to appease certain audiences, and know to never present a problem without also proposing a solution. Years of interpreting arcane texts whose authors are long dead has equipped me with the analytical skills to solve even the most unique problem.” While Juliana’s transition from classical history to startups may initially seem like a stretch, it shows that the lessons learned in classics can be applied to any industry.

Given that Silicon Valley is the center of technology, and that Silicon Valley is valuing liberal arts backgrounds (e.g. history), and that technology is the future, therefore in order to be a futurist, must you also be a historian? Perhaps it’s time for a new major: Renaissance Futurism.

Nick Ducoff currently serves as Northeastern University’s Vice President for New Ventures, incubating new business ideas to diversify revenue streams and advance a new model of higher education. Follow @nickducoff

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