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Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education: Part III

What Google Learned

Among the tech companies, Google is probably the most famous for its rigorous hiring process.  As Cathy Davidson, the author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, writes:

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

Obviously this algorithm would fill Google with STEM graduates at the entry level and presumably those employees would eventually become the successful mid level and top management in the organization.

True to its DNA, Google decided to use data to analyze how well its hiring algorithm was at producing successful employees.  Davidson writes:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others with different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

This list is very much like the skills and experiences that are touted by residential liberal arts colleges: critical thinking, communication, living and learning in a diverse community, and synthesizing ideas. I’d also note that some of the Benedictine values we emphasize at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict map nicely onto this list: respect for individuals, hospitality and the importance of community.

Google did further research in 2017, employing anthropologists and ethnographers, and found further support for the importance of soft skills:

Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

As a result of its research Google has broadened its hiring model with the goal of including humanities majors, artists, and even MBAs, candidates that the STEM-heavy organization had previously viewed with skepticism, at best.

None of this is particularly surprising for fans of the liberal arts.  The philosophy behind a broad based curriculum emphasizing exploration of the humanities, arts, natural sciences and social sciences is that such an education both makes students more successful in their major field of study and better prepares them for the diverse and changing world they will live in.

What Google’s research suggests is that even technology and science companies that embrace the liberal arts find themselves more successful and better at understanding the needs of their customers and the changing marketplace.

This worldview is shared by another highly successful tech company that is a neighbor of Google’s in Silicon Valley.  Steve Jobs famously said of his company, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education: Part II

Technology and the Liberal Arts

Technology and the liberal arts are sometimes characterized as being at odds with one another.  (Though, of course, the liberal arts are more accurately called the liberal arts and sciences.)

STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) are often touted for their practical, vocational opportunities while the liberal arts, especially the humanities, are often caricatured for their supposed lack of applicability.  “What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy, English, art history……?”  (See here , here , here and here )

Such simplistic characterizations of STEM or the liberal arts are neither realistic or helpful when thinking about education either for individuals or society.  A well-educated person needs to know something about both sciences and the humanities, almost regardless of their vocational choice.  Society and the economy obviously benefit from all fields of knowledge and, maybe most importantly, from the interactions between fields.

I was reminded of this important point, among others, when reading The Innovators by Walter Issacson, a fascinating history of the digital revolution from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace to Steve Jobs and Google.  (Issacson also wrote a recent biography of Jobs.)

At first blush, the digital revolution might seem to be all about STEM, but Issacson’s thoughtful and “tenderhearted history”  draws some important lessons that are relevant for students and educators across all fields.

First, throughout the book Issacson considers the relative importance of lone wolf inventors/geniuses versus collaborations and teams in bringing about the digital revolution, and he comes down firmly on the side of the latter.

First and foremost…creativity is a collaborative process.  Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses.  This is true of every era of creative ferment.

Furthermore, Issacson writes:

The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations.  The collaborations were not merely among contemporaries but also between generations.  The best innovators were those who understood the trajectory of technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them….The most productive teams brought together people with a wide array of specialties.

Second, Issacson also makes an interesting observation about how collaborations best succeed:

Even though the Internet provided a tool for virtual and distant collaborations, another lesson of the digital-age innovations is that, now as in the past, physical proximity is beneficial.  There is something special…about meetings in the flesh that cannot be replicated digitally.

A lesson that residential educational institutions live out every day, with students working and playing together.

Finally, Issacson concludes with the most important lesson of the digital revolution: even as computing machines get faster, more versatile and increasingly powerful, people bring an irreplaceable element to the human-machine symbiosis. Quoting IBM research director John Kelly, “The machines will be more rational and analytical.  People will provide judgment, intuition, empathy, a moral compass, and human creativity.”

Humans think different.  Issacson writes:

Human creativity involves values, intentions, aesthetic judgments, emotions personal consciousness, and a moral sense.  These are what the arts and humanities teach us—and why those realms are as valuable a part of education as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  If we mortals are to uphold our end of the human-computer symbiosis, if we are to retain a role as the creative partners of our machines, we must continue to nurture the wellsprings of our imagination and originality and humanity.

In 1959,  English novelist and chemist C. P. Snow famously wrote of the divide between “Two Cultures,” the arts and the sciences. Issacson’s powerful history of the digital revolution reminds us of the continuing need to link those two areas of intellectual endeavor for the thriving of individuals and the betterment of society, which is what a great liberal arts education is all about.

By |February 2nd, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Reflections on a Liberal Arts Education: Part I, Essentials of a Liberal Arts Education?

A thoughtful note from a friend and fellow alumnus spurred me to some New Year’s reflections on the liberal arts and how we endeavor to educate the young men* who come to Saint John’s University.

While I have argued elsewhere that institutional communities made up of many diverse individuals can rarely be said to have a single “opinion” on political or social matters, I certainly believe that institutions, like colleges and universities, do have missions.  Faculty, staff and students all have a variety of choices in the matter of where they will work or study, and presumably the mission of the educational institution they choose is one of the most significant factors in that important decision.

One of the foundational elements of Saint John’s University’s mission is to provide a liberal arts education, and in this we are in exceptional company.  Most of our finest academic peers in Minnesota—Carleton, Macalester, St. Olaf, Gustavus Adolphus and Concordia-Moorhead—are liberal arts colleges, and most of the finest institutions in the United States—the Ivies, University of Chicago, Stanford—provide their undergraduates with a liberal arts education.  It is also true that many more comprehensive universities, especially the flagship public institutions, also provide a liberal arts education for many of their students.

While there is general agreement that a liberal arts education focuses on the arts and sciences, rather than on professional or vocational training, educators and students have wide-ranging beliefs about the specific purpose of such an education.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Hunter Rawlings III, former president of the University of Iowa and Cornell University, offered some stimulating reflections on what is important in a liberal education.  He, not surprisingly for a classicist, eloquently uses poetry, art and literature to propose “five essentials of a liberal education.”


1. Liberation: to liberate our students’ minds from the constraints of their often unexamined upbringing and natural provincialism and to produce their own “complex meanings.”
2. Irreverence: to encourage students to be serious about learning but not to impose “a stultifying reverence” on knowledge and education.
3. Pleasure: to have students have joy and excitement while they learn, in school and throughout life.
4. Provocation: to challenge students, to stretch them, to make them uncomfortable.
5. Courage: to give students the courage to try new and hard ideas and endeavors.

Rawlings acknowledges that his list is likely not exhaustive, writing, “Liberation, irreverence, pleasure, provocation, courage — those are, in my view, five essentials of liberal education. Many more could be proposed, of course.”

It is certainly hard to disagree with Rawlings’ list.  A student that graduates having meaningfully experienced these attributes of a liberal arts education will be well prepared for a lifetime of ongoing education and learning, with all the joys and successes that come with it.

Yet it seems to me there is something essential and even foundational missing from this list—something that distinguishes a liberal arts education at places like Saint John’s from those at Cornell or big public universities like the University of Iowa.  There is no clear reference to the spiritual lives of students.  Rawlings does not mention a search for truth, the development of values and morals, or the exploration of ultimate questions about meaning.  He does quote a physicist who suggests a liberal education should consider, “What is justice?  What is a good life?”  But Rawlings seems to consciously skirt those ultimate questions of meaning, existence and the timeless truths that invariably touch on students’ spiritual lives.

This absence would be unthinkable at a Catholic and Benedictine institution—and likely also at any institution that continues to be grounded in its faith based origins.  (Ironically, of course, the earliest United States universities were founded, in part, to educate clergy.)

None of Rawlings essentials would be missing from a liberal education at Saint John’s but a quick look at our mission, vision and values clearly reminds students that there is another essential that is at least as important at those noted above:

Mission of Saint John’s University
Grounded in Catholic and Benedictine values and tradition, Saint John’s University provides young men a distinctive residential liberal arts education, preparing them to reach their full potential and instilling in them the values and aspiration to lead lives of significance and principled achievement.

Vision for the College of Arts and Sciences
Saint John’s University seeks to be one of the nation’s great Catholic liberal arts colleges by providing the best holistic learning experience for men in the country.

We will inspire undergraduate men to new heights of intellectual, spiritual, physical and social development that is informed by ethical reflection and grounded in our Catholic and Benedictine tradition.

Dedicated to the pursuit of understanding, wisdom, and the common good, Saint John’s University is committed to the following values:

Community built upon relationships of hospitality, respect, cooperation, and challenge.
Openness to learning, inquiry, beauty, truth, and difference.
Respect for persons, tradition, creativity, experience, faith, reason, and religious practice.
Depth in understanding, relationships, faith, and spirituality.
Sacredness of God, being, truth, place, nature, and knowledge.
Passion for excellence, truth, learning, beauty, love, and personal growth.

This essential part of a Saint John’s liberal education is certainly not to suggest that the goal is to preach, proselytize or convert.  Students are not told what to think or believe, but encouraged to explore the spiritual side of their humanity, something that is a natural part of their growth into adulthood.  A student’s answers to the questions of what he believes or does not believe is often foundational to the person he becomes and the life he chooses to lead.

There is nothing wrong with the five essentials that Rawlings proposes, but at Saint John’s (among other institutions with ongoing commitments to religious traditions) to think about a liberal education without immediately considering the ultimate questions of meaning, purpose and spiritual concerns misses an important, maybe the important, purpose of the liberal arts.  Most of the finest liberal arts institutions were  founded around these questions, but a much small number of those institutions continue to make these questions central to the education of their students.  At Saint John’s University, we still do.

*With our single academic program, the women who are educated at the College of Saint Benedict have an experience very much like that of the men at Saint John’s, but, given my role, it is appropriate that I limit my claims to what happens in Collegeville.

By |January 5th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|1 Comment