For decades, pursuing a liberal arts degree was seen as the foolish endeavor of hopeless idealists that were torn between pursuing the life of a poet or potter or becoming a teacher or a lawyer.
After all, what's the real value of being able to interpret literature or understand art within its historical context?
As someone who holds not one- but two- english literature degrees, it's refreshing to witness the apparent redemption and rise of the liberal arts major.
In this age of digitization and big data, the critical thinking and cross-disciplinary perspective taught in many liberal arts programs is becoming more and more valuable to businesses as their need for putting data and behaviors into context increases.
We might be on the verge of a new liberal arts career golden age. Let's take a look at how hiring a liberal arts major in the digital age can benefit your business.
Technology and Data Need a Human Context
In his book The Fuzzy and the Techie, as cited by the Harvard Business Review, venture capitalist Scott Hartley sees liberal arts critical thinking as eventually becoming more valuable to businesses than specific tech skills. Eventually, Hartley believes artificial intelligence will take over the tech side- in other words, these narrowly focused skills will become automated.
What is more difficult to automate is the human context, the ability to take large amounts of data, and, through a combination of knowledge, intuition and high-tech, make practical sense out of it all.
In other words, businesses will need employees that know how to ask the right questions about data and find ways to utilize the data to understand the nuances and complexities of human behavior.
Interpretation. Making meaning. Human understanding. All skills taught in strong liberal arts programs across the country.
As Hard Skills Become Automated, Soft Skills Will Rule
In February 2017, Mark Cuban was interviewed by Bloomberg, and stated the following when asked about the future labor market:
"I personally think there's going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker."
Automating meaning making and the ability to humanize numbers and patterns into actionable strategies is far more difficult for artificial intelligence or robots to perform. In fact, this is likely the last frontier for AI, whereas automating other hard skill tasks is literally right around the corner.
So, maybe that paper you wrote in graduate school on Melville's Moby Dick wasn't as silly as your finance major friends made it out to be. The future economy, if we listen to some of the leading thinkers and business leaders, will place higher value on creative critical thinkers and meaning makers (i.e. "soft skills") as more hard skills jobs get taken over by automated processes.
The Ideal Liberal Arts Hire
Not all liberal arts degrees are created equal and not all employees with a liberal arts background have intrinsic value.
If we examine what thought leaders are saying about the future labor market, it's cross-disciplinary contextual skills that will be prized in the future economy, not necessarily one's ability to interpret poetry.
Finding liberal arts majors whose undergrad or graduate program's underpinnings were a true liberal arts education- meaning a blend of multiple disciplines, including history, science, literature and the social sciences- is ideal.
Having applied critical thinking skills across disciplines and varying contexts, hiring this renaissance person for the right position in your company could be a great investment.
In an article in Fortune, Wilson Peden writes, "I should stress that my point is not that prospective students should major in humanities fields rather than, say, engineering—I have no wish to erase the real differences that exist among all of these disciplines or pit them against each other in any way. When you read the news and see the vast array of scientific, political, and cultural challenges facing the United States today, it becomes pretty clear that we need more and better-educated college graduates in>every discipline, and we need all those graduates to be equipped with a broad base of knowledge and intellectual skills that cut across disciplines."
So, it's not basket weaving or interpretive dance majors you should seek out. You want to hire liberal arts graduates that have, as Peden puts it, "...a broad base of knowledge and intellectual skills that cut across disciplines."
So What Does This Mean for Your Business?
Honestly, it's difficult to say for the here and now. At a minimum, the forecasted rise in liberal arts degree market value is eye opening.
While AI and automation are in their early stages they will advance rapidly. And businesses that are behind the curve when it comes to building a balanced staff comprised of hard and soft skills workers could get left in the dustbin of history.
So the next time you see that history or english degree resume come across your desk don't throw it in the trash pile. Dig a bit deeper and you might find that new hire that can ask the right questions and that can humanize your data for stronger results.
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