Here's an early draft of Sunday's column. You'll notice that the column makes a reference to Oregon State's Jon Louis Dorbolo; check out Saturday's G-T for a story about Dorbolo and his work.
Here's the column:
An article in a recent issue of The New Republic addresses a question that likely gets aired on occasion in the halls of Oregon State University and other institutions of higher learning:
Why should anyone study the liberal arts these days?
The New Republic writer, Judith Shulevitz, points to alarming signs: Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, for example, is trying to make the case that state universities should charge higher tuition for students who pick majors in fields that don’t immediately lead to jobs.
And a measure still is kicking around Congress that would prohibit the National Science Foundation from funding political science research unless it’s certified as “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”
So no wonder there’s a sense in academia that the humanities and social sciences are under attack, as a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences put it last month.
And, truthfully, the increasing cost of college tuition makes it harder than ever before to make the case for learning simply for the sake of learning.
But let me give it a shot.
For her part, Shulevitz builds a case that is only a little bit tongue-in-cheek: The humanities are important, she argues, because they give us science fiction, which has led to new inventions – and new jobs. The cellphone? First envisioned, for all intents and purposes, in the communicators used on “Star Trek.” The submarine was inspired by Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
The creator of Second Life, the online virtual world now marking its 10th anniversary, says he was inspired in large part by Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash.” A company now sells a device called the “Power Loader,” a suit with robotic legs that allows workers to carry hundreds of pounds. It’s based on the wearable forklift Sigourney Weaver dons in “Aliens.”
Shulevitz lists plenty of other examples as well – but her argument is, thankfully, somewhat more sophisticated than that.
The liberal arts are important, she argues, in part because they allow us a different perspective from which to examine these kinds of technologies and how they might affect and change our lives. It’s the kind of perspective that you don’t necessarily get when you’re absorbed in the hard sciences.
When I talked recently with Jon Louis Dorbolo, the assistant director of OSU’s Technology Across the Curriculum program – and someone poised at the intersection of technology and philosophy (a subject he’s taught for decades) – he reminded me of this great old quote from Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
So let me pose what amounts to an amplification to the Shulevitz argument: The liberal arts are important because they teach us how to think.
To quote the report from the Academy of Arts and Sciences: Thriving over the long term in the global job market requires “qualities of mind: inquisitiveness, perceptiveness, the ability to put a received idea to a new purpose, and the ability to share and build ideas with a diverse world of others.”
My guess is those are skills that any employer would love to see in a new recruit.
And they are skills that any university or college should be proud to teach.