Liberal Arts and Our Future

We will always need talented engineers and scientists. But our future rests on how successful we are in getting technology and humans to interact in ways that benefit our planet and everyone who lives on it.
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There is a wonderful quotation that begins journalist Fareed Zakaria's new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, from E. O. Wilson, a world-renowned American biologist.

"We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom," Wilson declares. "The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely."

For the past two decades, I have been a university dean, provost and now chancellor, jobs I have dearly loved. And while I am an electrical engineer and scientific researcher by training, I know Wilson has put his finger on something crucial.

Along with other educators and business leaders, I have long been stressing the importance of outstanding university programs in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. We've done so because with our economy increasingly driven by technology and information, we don't want to see America lose ground to other nations in scientific and technical expertise.

This will always be important. But I have also come to believe that liberal arts, which can be downplayed sometimes with all the focus on STEM, need to be a cornerstone of the education students receive as they prepare to build futures for themselves and for America.

Recently, we have begun to hear leading tech companies talk more about the value of job applicants they see being well-versed in the liberal arts.

"You need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts," Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president who oversees the company's hiring, told the New York Times a year ago. "Building that balance is hard, but that's where you end up building great societies, great organizations."

To learn more from companies like Google and others directly, UC Davis put together an informal group of professors and business leaders and met with more than 20 successful firms in the Silicon Valley and Northern California.

The campus team included George Mangun, our social sciences dean and an internationally recognized expert on the cognitive neuroscience of attention; Tim McCarthy, a UC Davis alum with a long record of success in the financial services industry in this country and Asia; and Joseph Dumit, an anthropology professor and director of the new UC Davis Institute for Social Sciences.

In addition to Google, companies they met with included Facebook, Intel, Oracle, Yahoo, eBay, Dropbox, Sutter Health and Pandora. The same themes came up again and again in the meetings: Firms today have mountains of data containing many of the answers they will need to solve a wide array of challenges, but they don't have sufficient creative resources to mine the data and figure out exactly what is possible -- or even preferable -- to shoot for and accomplish.

Leading information-based companies will always need bright young engineers and other technical experts to solve problems. But they need more people who know how to think across boundaries, integrate information, identify social and cultural trends, acquire data in support of their ideas, crunch it and present it in a clear and compelling way.

Our team processed what it heard and, with help from faculty and other outside experts, we designed a new pilot program in Data Studies for liberal arts majors that starts on our campus this summer. The goal of the program is to teach our students how to think about data and equip them with the practical "data carpentry" skills companies like these need, making our liberal arts graduates that much more marketable.

Early enrollment numbers indicate considerable interest in our three initial classes: Introduction to Data Studies, Concepts in Data Analysis and Statistical Reasoning and Data Studies Projects and Presentations. The program has room to grow if it goes as well as we expect.

I am excited by the prospects because we have come up with an action plan to create opportunities for our liberal arts majors and others.

We will always need talented engineers and scientists. But our future rests on how successful we are in getting technology and humans to interact in ways that benefit our planet and everyone who lives on it. For that, as Zakaria and others have noted, we need greater creativity, aesthetic sensibility, social, political and psychological insights. Which is another way of saying, more liberal arts.

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