Should colleges or universities of the liberal arts and science disappear through irrelevance? Are they obsolete? Worry exists among some Deans and Presidents. But yet, do these institutions have a new, ever more important role for insuring our future?
Joel Mokyr, Professor of Economic History at Northwestern University, argues that while useful knowledge matters, we often forget our political, social, material, and cultural riches were built over a thousand years on a foundation of intellectualism, skepticism and creativity[i].
The printing press helped to disseminate knowledge and make it useful. The clock’s invention forced consideration of the flow of time. The Renaissance and Enlightenment stimulated know-how and movement toward democratic political systems. Montaigne asked “what do I know.” Newton celebrated standing on the shoulders of giants. Locke and Kant knew we could reason. Progress occurred not just because of technical breakthroughs. No, we could also think, broadly and with insight.
We thought about many things. Indeed, some of the greatest thinkers were able to do so across many disciplines. The ability to bridge seemingly unrelated concepts often was catalyst for change. Reading, listening and talking created a marketplace of ideas, where we solved problems and moved forward.
Yes, engineering and technical tinkering were needed to complement the discoveries within art and science. Nevertheless, the latter fields were necessary to gain understanding, to see nuance, to assess risk, or to stop totalitarianism. The world of books and education provided inter-generational connectedness. We looked to the past and wished to insure the future.
All through an effort to deal with uncertainty and enhance our judgment.
Enter the age of analytics and big data. Statistical confidence intervals have shrunk nearly to nothing. Now, all of humanity is at our fingertips. Almost, those who are in the know see through walls, to our most personal activities, to our behavior, to our desires, to our vices. Analytics and big data offer one more wave of technological “eureka!” that enables more people to be fed, clothed, moved, healed, or entertained. Big data is x-ray vision simultaneously capable of producing opportunity beyond our wildest dreams and contributing to our most horrific nightmares.
And what shall we do?
Pressure is immense to obtain jobs and careers through technical education, at the expense of broad learning within the liberal arts and sciences. Irrelevant is a word often used as a description. But is it?
Doesn’t the rise of analytics and big data create a new opportunity for broader study? After all, among many other socioeconomic fields, big data is touted as relevant in health care, transportation, manufacturing, government, pharmaceuticals, or education. Is not each of these an arena where ethics, privacy, interpretation, judgment remain important? Are not these the same arenas where the study of the liberal arts and science mitigated tremendous risks because those who were suitably trained saw danger where others did not? Are not these arenas where opportunities developed because those trained in the liberal arts and sciences possessed a perspective capable of seeing across boundaries and asking, “why not?”
Most of all, is it not true that while many entrepreneurs were technicians at the beginning, they came to see the value of diverse thinking and the need to live with change and competition?
Big data and analytics reinvent liberal arts and science colleges and universities, but not because of any newfangled way to teach. Change in teaching systems will always occur. No! Reinvention occurs because again, 500 years later after the printing press and 800 years after the development of the mechanical clock, the vital contributions of the liberal arts and sciences to humanity are needed, desperately.
If allowed to fail, if students are not introduced to worlds beyond their technical or narrow majors, if society does not reap the benefits of thoughtful and deep reasoning, but instead only to worship the onrushing tsunamis of data, then we risk an Orwellian world, dominated by Big Brother or big corporation or big wealth.
Colleges and universities of the liberal arts and sciences must change their ways, yes. However, it is only to acknowledge that every single discipline must contribute to the intelligent use of big data and maximize its potential. At the same time, every single discipline must teach itself about big data and analytics. Joel Moykr also celebrated “the Lever of Riches.”[ii] A lever works because of complementary components and action working together. Knowledge and judgment are important levers to technical progress and resulting riches. Let’s use them, not abandon them.
A YouTube commentary on this post is available here.
Michael Donovan is Associate Professor of Business and Economics at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He places special attention on the role of liberal arts and science in business decision-making. In addition to advanced studies in public policy, he holds degrees from Bowdoin College and the Columbia Business School. He had worked for the Bank of Boston, Data General Corporation, and AT&T before pursuing a mid-career change to economic and urban development policy and higher education, which includes a four-year term with the City Council of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the state’s third largest city. Professor Donovan may be reached at Mdonovan(at)cedarcrest(dot)edu.
* Thanks to Michael Donovan for sharing this insightful and thought-provoking post with the Koa Lab Blog as a guest blogger. Michael hired me into my first internship at Bowdoin. He opened his home, his family and his mentorship to me and established an expectation of giving back to others that has always served as a powerful role model for me in my career and my life. – Andy Palmer