A Case for Liberal Arts and STEM: Part Two

The overall point of this four part series is the assertion that there is a place for both types of education in today’s society and that liberal arts degree-holders can succeed just as easily in STEM careers. Part 1 is here.

Defining liberal arts is sometimes a challenge, because the definition has evolved. An early definition is this:

Henry David Thoreau writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”

That came from an article which purports that liberal arts are traditionally the birthright of the wealthy few, and the push for more vocational experiences for the working class is a means to maintain the disparate societal strata. (Play with these some to get an idea of how this has evolved in the United States.)

In more bold terms: vocational education makes better worker bees; liberal arts training makes leaders. There is probably some truth to this. In my prior post, I linked to several examples of “the rich” openly attempting to slash funding for public education in liberal arts and defending those actions as being in the best interest of students graduating into the current economy. However, I’ve seen just as many individual “rich” operating against that agenda. We operate not in a world of black and white, but gray. Personally, I believe there are always a number of competing agendas in this debate and summarizing one side’s motivations into one category does not serve the purpose of intellectual discourse. Ad hominem attacks are the basest form of debate.

We cannot, however, deny that race relations, class structure, gender issues and social programs are not part of the equation that makes up an individual identity and therefore contribute to the pathway the individual takes on the pursuit of happiness.

Many of you will be familiar with Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist who holds that those who want to succeed in Silicon Valley should forego college altogether. (He himself has a degree in Philosophy and a law degree from Stanford). He co-founded PayPal and backed organizations such as Facebook and LinkedIn in their infancy. Why does Peter Thiel advocate dropping out of college altogether?

Thiel, who is Stanford-educated and now teaching a course on startups at his alma mater, was sure to clarify, however:

I’ve never claimed that nobody should go to college or that we should shut down all the universities in this country or anything like that. What I have argued is that there is no one-size-fits-all, and that we need to have a more diverse array of things that people, including our most talented people, can be doing.

That sounds like a pretty good endorsement for the idea that multiple pathways to success exist.

If we view the pathway from high school graduation to success in business or a technology firm as a journey level employee, there are many paths that could potentially lead to this place. If we instead define success as reaching a pinnacle such as becoming a CEO or a successful entrepreneur of such a business or tech firm, we might envision a slightly different pathway. The end game matters in the definition of the “right” way to get there.

Countless examples of successful people outside of that pathway likely exist; it is a perception that only one way is right. The fact is, the burden of achieving success is partially on the individual – if you provide the perfect environment for learning for one, you may inadvertently create an an environment that is not ideal for someone else – and it is entirely possible for external factors to drive someone to “drop out” (become a leak in the pipeline) even if they are “perfect” at following the steps.

A one-size-fits-all education will never be the only answer. People are diverse, there is an inherent bias in all of us toward other people who are not like us (it is how the brain works), and particularly for fields where women and minorities are disparately represented historically, there will be a tendency to favor one kind of education over the other. As one article points out, it is difficult for the in-group to imagine the challenges of the out-group in the same program because of the underlying decisions and behaviors that reinforce the success of the in-group.

There is inherent psychology of hiring, (not to mention retention and development of employees in your organization, a topic of a future post). As to why women change their career aspirations away from a male-dominant field after incurring significant costs to obtain the right degree, that has been well-studied and warrants a future post. If you want to get a head start on the research, take this case study for instance.

Peter Thiel is a white male venture capitalist (this merits repeating). He specializes in finding raw talent or ideas and putting money and advice into them to succeed in making more money back than he invested.

The vast majority of college students have been programmed to view college as a necessary step toward their career – an investment. With more and more graduates unable to find work in their chosen field, Thiel acknowledges the skills and talents that he has seen demonstrate success – namely, non-conformance to the idea that a degree is necessary for success and a willingness to take risks by starting your own business without the right piece of paper to back your credibility. When you turn the argument into a business case, he is right to question the inherent value of “a college degree” which is a very nice way of saying “I spent 4 years surrounded by my peers away from my parents and they gave me this nice piece of paper to take into the world when I was done – it’s my golden ticket.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the liberal arts,” Thiel assured the very author of this story who admitted to attending a liberal arts college. “I think there is a problem with amassing $100,000 of students loans in something where you can’t get a really well-paying job out of it on the other end.”

So, what’s the alternative?

“It’s really hard to say,” Thiel acknowledged. His “disturbing answer” is that students need to start figuring it out on their own (emphasis my own).

If he were making the choice today, though?

“If I had to do it over again, I might still very well go to Stanford; I think it’s a great university,” he said. “But I’d ask a lot of tougher questions as to why I’m doing this.”


This was Peter Thiel’s favorite graph of 2013. Like I said: it’s a business case. How about a few more?

In 2010, Steve Jobs famously mused that for technology to be truly brilliant, it must be coupled with artistry. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” Other tech CEOs across the country agree that liberal arts training—with its emphasis on creativity and critical thinking—is vital to the success of their business.

Steve Yi, CEO of web advertising platform MediaAlpha, says that the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white. “In the dynamic environment of the technology sector, there is not typically one right answer when you make decisions,” he says. “There are just different shades of how correct you might be,” he says.

Yi says his interdisciplinary degree in East Asian Studies at Harvard taught him to see every issue from multiple perspectives: in college, he studied Asian literature in one class, then Asian politics or economics in the next.  (Link for both of these quotes)

Later on:

“The ability to quickly synthesize information and structure it in a way that is comprehensible to non-technical people is powerful,” says MediaAlpha’s Steve Yi.

Tech CEOs are generally keen to hire people trained in the humanities, partly because a large proportion of them have similar backgrounds themselves. (A third of all Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees.) But for students coming out of liberal arts colleges, it can still be difficult to find work in the tech sector. Georgia Nugent, the former president of Kenyon College who is currently a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, says that top executives are not responsible for hiring entry level staff. Instead, recruiters and HR managers on the hiring front lines often use systems that pick candidates for tech jobs based on key terms like “coding” and “programming,” which many liberal arts graduates will not have on their resumes.

Nugent is concerned about this trend because she thinks that training students for very specific tasks seems shortsighted when technology and business is evolving at such a fast rate. “It’s a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task,” she says. “We are doing a disservice to young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.”

Stay tuned for Part 3 and Part 4. As always, I welcome comments and respectful discourse.

A Case for Liberal Arts and STEM Education: Part One

This is Part One of a four part series. Part Two is here.


This subject matters to me for a variety of reasons, all important. I am a graduate of a small, liberal arts women’s college in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College which had a recent brush with death, as its current (at the time) Board of Directors attempted to close due to what the group unanimously declared “insurmountable financial challenges.” (See this article for a good summary of the original intent to close; for the reasons why the claim was false, I point you to this, this, this, and this for starters). This article will not cover the Sweet Briar situation in detail, but needless to say, it informed my choice to write about this subject.

I am also a non-engineering graduate working as an engineer in a highly male dominated field; my educational background is an asset in my organization when most other engineers came from two or three feeder engineering programs where the graduates emerge, well, programmed much the same. Organizational learning and psychology are not fields that your typical left-brained engineer will be interested in studying. Having engineers who can speak to technical teams and understand the big picture philosophy of the business is an asset. Those individuals are well-suited to advancement through the ranks and able to adjust focus to organizational and operational considerations far beyond the inner workings of a computational fluid dynamics model or the structural considerations of airplane design. There are places for both types at the table.


The Department of the Navy is mandated to maintain an effort to be a discrimination-free workplace. The means by which this is measured is an annual report called the MD 715. This is the form from 2008, which was the latest I could find open source. At last count, my particular organization employs women at a rate of participation of (a fancy way of saying women make up) 20% of the total workforce. Some sub-level organizations are as low as 10%.

I argue for liberal arts education and the achievement of a STEM degree, versus one or the other. I particularly advocate for people to consider single-sex education and for hiring managers to widen the pool of potential candidates from which you recruit.

Why single-sex education?

Single sex education is a demonstrated means for women to develop the skills required to be competitive in the STEM workforce, and we need to do better at recruiting women.

Why Liberal Arts?

A facetious answer is that no technical schools for women only exist in the traditional accredited college model. Yet it is true. However, there are only two women-only colleges in the nation offering an ABET-accredited engineering degree: Sweet Briar College and Smith College. The DoD agency for which I work does not recruit at either place, and yet laments the abysmal “participation rate” of women in Science and Engineering occupations in terms of recruiting, retention and development into senior leaders. Let’s get some facts straight.

STEM includes Science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics and any number of specialized fields therein), Technology (which is fairly encompassing of a variety of fields including several which do not require a four year degree), Engineering (of which there are many specializations) and Mathematics (which includes Economics, Applied Mathematics, Computer Science, Bioinformatics and any other number of specialized fields). Why then does the federal sector exclude all of these from the “A” category on interdisciplinary engineering job announcements? While not transparent, clearly there is a selection mechanism for non-ABET accredited engineering degrees within the process, and the results lead to the conclusion that any STEM degree is not good enough, engineering is the “best.” Is this true in practice?


Liberal arts education has demonstrable impacts on the ability to think critically, understand context and perspective, form objective conclusions, and exhibit resilience in the face of adversity. The federal government requires senior leaders to show outstanding capacity to lead people, lead change, exhibit business acumen, be driven to produce tangible results, and build coalitions as needed to effect change.

Liberal arts education is often frowned upon in favor of professional and trade-oriented study when attempting to be hired as an entry-level candidate. In many agencies, there are no such positions for anyone lacking a bachelors degree, and candidates are more apt to be hired into Naval Acquisition with a STEM degree. A STEM degree in itself requires those same qualities for success. A distinct priority in hiring candidates is to prefer an engineering degree from a technical program.

I believe the federal STEM workforce is due for significant challenges in the future if the current political and personal agendas to eliminate liberal arts in favor of stove-piped technical degrees continues. The trends are there to analyze and a mandate to work toward barrier elimination is required. Have the individual organizations focused on the “right” barriers? Probably not. Are they required to work on all of them? Not at all. Two barriers are to be selected. For my agency, the two focus areas have been: establish diversity action teams comprised of the entire workforce via a selection process, and work toward increased hiring of individuals with targeted disabilities. They have achieved both according to the tracked metrics. And they will continue to work on both, but is this enough? I think not.

The federal sector tends to move more slowly than industry toward a philosophy of workforce management. Let’s start with industry and work toward ever narrowing the focus toward the federal sector in our analysis.

It is frequently argued in modern American society that liberal arts education is on the decline for valid reasons. The position of the federal government on the matter of hiring liberal arts majors is fairly clear when one compares the job series for STEM graduates and business majors to the slim pickings for humanities or the arts. Many outside the fields of higher education and government have argued that today’s workforce needs to be oriented toward technical training and vocational skills, not liberal arts. Despite respected industrial reports detailing the need for employees to have problem-solving skills and exhibit resilience in changing industrial circumstances, politicians seem hell bent on eliminating funding for public institutions which provide opportunities in the liberal arts over vocational programs.

I believe there is a valid need for both and the real issue lies in individual pursuit of the “right” choice; this is further complicated by other factors such as politicians offering uninformed opinions on the “value” of liberal arts (typically negative opinions) and the tendency of today’s society to rely on television (where politicians receive an inordinate amount of coverage) rather than reading and conceptualizing the facets of opinions into a more coherent viewpoint.

This goes against the views of an evaluator of your USA Jobs application for an engineering position, where you have to distinguish yourself as either A) holding a bachelors in an ABET accredited engineering discipline or B) holding some other STEM degree (of which not all potential options are listed) or C) neither. I have seen people who were highly qualified and desired candidates by hiring managers not make a certification list, because of this practice. Anecdotally, I’ve heard at least 50 stories from one site; extrapolating to all the others, it seems many qualified candidates are being withheld from employment without that “right” piece of paper. This is in the federal sector where they are required not to discriminate (yes, I know STEM are not a protected class).

Recruitment is not funded well; HR professionals typically lack STEM degrees and hold the reins on evaluation of candidates. Hiring managers put in a preferred degree and qualifications summary. HR determines the type of announcement to post and for what duration. HR also controls the recruiting efforts and typically chooses to recruit at the same programs over and over. For a STEM-heavy federal sector, these tend to be feeder engineering programs at large universities: Penn State, Morgan State, Virginia Tech, Stanford, MIT… you get the idea. Since many graduates from those programs are being courted by other employers which tend to pay more, we do lose out on their best candidates on a routine basis. We recruit whoever has not chosen the higher salary offer and don’t mind living in high-cost areas for a smaller salary. For many, this is not a possibility. DoD does not recruit at either of the women’s colleges that graduate female ABET-accredited engineers.

Why? A happy medium is a STEM degree obtained at a liberal arts college and not limiting recruitment to public universities, which are obviously going to attract students who cannot afford to fully fund their own education. Not all public colleges are vocational in nature, and many offer liberal arts degrees alongside their technical degrees. Recruiters and HR professionals are not always able to even choose the schools for targeted recruiting, but there are ways to recruit outside of command-funded trips to sanctioned college fairs. Why are we not doing this?

This piece seeks to explore some of the arguments in detail to support a shift in mentality for hiring managers to consider a more expansive range of qualifications for entry level positions, and a widening of the pool of “qualified” talent for specific job series which currently hire a very specific set of individuals from notably narrow pools of talent at specific schools. While intended for the Department of the Navy to consider, this has applications elsewhere within society and other sectors will be discussed.

Corporate Views

Corporate America, which is the place where American ingenuity is most publicly celebrated, revels in the ability to hire a wide range of individuals with skills and talents which exceed the narrow minded view that all that is required for success is a specific technical acumen. Businesses that have become giants among others in the same category are sought after for internships and careers, from people graduating with majors ranging from business and marketing, to computer science, to art history; superstar CEOs and entrepreneurs are sought after for advice and frequently discuss the importance of a well-rounded education to include liberal arts.

Even (perhaps especially) among technical organizations, the ability to write and think clearly through a problem are touted as the ideal. These abilities are lamented as the fundamental ability lacking among new hires or candidates for employment who are not hired, despite having the “right” credentials on paper. This applies to both the public and the private sector. It is not uncommon to meet someone who is universally admired in the technology sector and find out the major they studied in college was among those purported to be a “waste of time” by those actively writing on higher education in this modern age of rising expenses and declining enrollment in the liberal arts.

Mark Zuckerberg (creator and CEO of Facebook) was a classic liberal arts student who studied ancient Greek intensively in high school and majored in psychology (and computer science) while he attended college (at Harvard, a liberal arts college). Mark has commented that Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.” He also has said the implications of Facebook stretch beyond simple local interactions and into fostering understanding between countries.

Does this sound like something a “typical” engineer or entrepreneur would discuss?

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and the owner of the Washington Post, has similar views. In this article, one point stands out: “he insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, while everyone reads the ‘narratives’ to themselves and makes notes on them.”

In an interview with Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, Bezos said: “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

Seems legit.

More to come on this subject in the future, thanks for reading!