It is no surprise that the number of students majoring in the humanities (History, English and Social Sciences) has decreased in recent years. Demand for these fields has recently receded to make way for what are colloquially referred to as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Forbes, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accumulated a list of the top 15 value majors, each of which fell in the STEM category. On the list were biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering and petroleum engineering. Fareed Zakaria, in an Op-Ed, described the need for STEM education as a ‘dangerous obsession’. Part of this obsession takes root in financial fear – in a job market where almost everyone has relatively career-oriented degrees, you cannot afford to study the humanities.
Yet, despite all of the doomsday prophecies regarding the decline of students studying in subjects like English and history, there is still a place for those wishing to study these fields, especially in the world of technology and startups. There is no shortage of tech CEOs – among them Apple’s Steve Jobs and Slack’s Steve Butterfield – who have spoken openly about their need to hire students with degrees in the humanities. There are indeed high profile leaders in technology who have a degree in the humanities, such as YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojkicki, who studied history and literature at Harvard University. In fact, a study done by LinkedIn has recently found that students with degrees in the liberal arts are joining startups at a faster rate than their technical counterparts. This study seems counterintuitive – it belies the traditional notion that tech is the territory of computer scientists.
Damon Horowitz, Google’s ‘in-house philosopher’, has suggested that you should ‘quit your Tech job and get a PhD in the humanities’. While a bit of an extremist, Horowitz speaks to the importance that the humanities and the type of thinking they spawn plays in the development of a successful company. The fact that a company such as Google – whose success began as a result of a complex, highly technical search algorithm, would find an Iin-house philosopher’ necessary speaks volumes about the need for this type of thinker in the world of startups and technology.
The fact is that Google may have gotten their start because of the search algorithm, but the reason they have become the omnipresent force they are today is because of the way they have evolved into a multifaceted service provider, interested in web browsers as well as self-driving cars. The top tech companies – Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook – are constantly in search of new ways to expand their services. Amazon is experimenting with drone delivery. Twitter has had its fingerprints all over television broadcasts. Facebook has evolved into an organisational hub and a messaging service.
Innovation is at the core of these companies and that is the reason why degrees in the humanities are prized by technology firms and startups today. Education in the humanities cultivates a strong ability to take different perspectives, think critically and cross-fertilise ideas. These are essential to innovation. Steve Jobs was a long-time proponent of a humanities education, and it is not hard to see why. Apple’s products have not become successful because of their technical capabilities, but because of their design – something only someone with a deep understanding of human nature and a capacity to bring that into the product development process could achieve.
It is not hard to see examples of how a humanities education could lead to innovation in numerous startup fields. For example, an understanding of the history of communication could allow one the foresight to come up with a new medium such as Twitter or Periscope. Similarly, a student who has read the works of Plato and Aristotle will have insight into human nature and appeals than one who does not. The humanities teach these types of things – as a field of study, it refers to the study of humans themselves. Knowing about humans is very important in terms of selling products to other humans.
This is not to say that engineers and programmers are not important to a company. When I spoke with Cameron Doody, founder of the moving company Bellhops, he stressed the importance of his engineers in terms of allowing the company to expand and operate. Yet although engineering provides a necessary backbone for every company, the blood pumping through its veins will always be of a different substance. In many ways, the two tenets of engineering and the humanities exist symbiotically in the success of a startup, yet the former rather than the latter has been seen as a safer career option. Philip Bean makes a similar point regarding the practicality of certain majors – ‘practical is a moving target’, he argues, citing the influx of Russian majors during the Cold War and the influx of Computer Science students in the 1990s and early 2000s. Majors like biomedical engineering – which Forbes has ranked as the highest value major – apply to a specific niche that is not malleable enough to fit the potential shifts in the market.
Perhaps this flexibility in application is what makes these fields appealing to some startups given the dynamic nature of those companies. Key tenets of a humanities education – the ability to read, write, and think critically – can be applied universally and lend themselves particularly to the type of innovation that is required of successful entrepreneurs. The Washington Post’s Vivek Wadhwa summarises this matter succinctly – ‘humanities majors can more easily focus on people and how they interact with technology’. This is not all to say that those who study in other fields are devoid of innovative thought, but that degrees in the humanities are not the ‘useless’ investments that many frustrated university parents believe them to be. Those looking to break through in Silicon Valley or as independent entrepreneurs should not be afraid of this traditional view of the humanities as ‘useless’. The need to innovate and actually sell a product that people want requires a broader sense of thought that many more career oriented fields of study simply cannot offer.