Tolstoy endures but here’s why the liberal arts may not

So I just read an interesting article tweeted by Parent Cortical Mass (@ParentCorticalM) by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post “Answer Sheet.” The basic premise is that the liberal arts are in danger because, as prices rise with debt burdens, parents and students are seeing less value in studying the humanities. The liberal arts are down to 8% of students while STEM majors proliferate. The prospect is a bleak world of engineers who aren’t able to discuss movies with their spouses because they aren’t properly equipped with philosophy and film studies backgrounds.

I violently agree.

In middle school and high school, I was equally into both computer programming and stamp collecting. Because of an unfortunate standardized testing experience at the end of 10th grade, I was led falsely to believe that “real” computer programming was not for me. I gave it up and focused almost entirely on the humanities, to the point of earning a Ph.D. in modern European history in 2003. During this time I would dabble in computers but not too seriously: I mastered Visual Basic and Microsoft Access enough to get a job in between undergraduate and graduate school; I was probably the first Master’s student to turn in a URL for a final exam in 1995; I leveraged my SQL and pivot table skills in my dissertation; I learned CSS as a diversion and made websites for friends. After two years of adjunct slavery, when the writing was on the wall that I was not going to get a job teaching history in a place that I wanted to live, I decided to return to software development. First I taught myself PHP and JavaScript in 2005, found a job as a junior developer, learned Ruby on Rails in 2007, and have been going on it full-time and passionately ever since.

I am not sure if I would be better off if I had studied computer science instead of international affairs, economics, and history. I think a good part of my value proposition comes from that duality of computer nerd and stamp collector that is part of my essence. I don’t want simply to be told the project requirements – I’d rather help you define them.

I’ve always appreciated that I’m glad to talk about the movie afterwards. I’ve been in a couple of book clubs. I read the New York Review of Books to keep my intellect alive. I can’t imagine the value of my life without the contribution of the humanities to it.

At the same time, the impression I got from Valerie Strauss is that it tends to be a one way street for these humanities people. The engineers’ lives would be so much better if they could deconstruct the plot of a move, and identify the discourses and so on. True so true!


I wonder how much more the humanities person would be if they had more serious exposure to STEM. Just as my technical practice has benefited from my humanities background, my intellectual life has equally benefited from the technical. Control flow, logic, variables and assignment, functions, classes, objects, events – these are equally helpful, valid and viable ways to intellectually organize the world. You also get a big boost in basic problem solving skills.

I challenge any humanities person before their next impassioned defense of the liberal arts: FIRST LEARN TO PROGRAM RUBY. Not enough to get a job. Just enough to do some code katas so that you can exercise the problem solving skills that come from programming. I think anybody who can get through a Tolstoy book is capable of that. (I suggest Ruby for the same reason as it is taught to children in Hackety Hack and KidsRuby – because of its accessibility to non-programmers while being a serious general purpose programming language.)

I dream of a world in which the engineer can intelligently argue Tolstoy, and the philosophers can code. Then we’d have a different talk about the job prospects of those undergraduates.

November 11, 2013 in Uncategorized
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