Liberal Arts and Humanities Education: Who Is Right—Bill Gates, or the Late Steve Jobs?
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When students asked me what subjects they should major in to become a
tech entrepreneur, I would say engineering, mathematics, and science. I
used to believe that education in these fields was a prerequisite for
innovation, and that engineers made the best entrepreneurs.
That was several years ago.
I realized how much my views have changed when the The New York Times
asked me to write a piece for its “Room for Debate” forum two years
ago. Since then, I have learned even more about the importance of
design and the role of the humanities in fostering creativity. I now
believe that the innovation economy needs musicians, artists, and
psychologists, as much as biomedical engineers, computer programmers,
I advise students to study subjects in which they have the most
passion. They must have the discipline to complete their bachelors
degree from any good school—not overpriced elite institutions that will
burden them with debt and limit their life options. With a bachelors
degree, they gain valuable social skills, learn how to interact and
work with others, how to compromise, and how to deal with rejection and
failure. Most importantly, they learn what it is that they don’t know
and where to find this knowledge when they need it.
The NY Times had asked me
to comment on the divergence of opinion between Bill Gates and Steve
Jobs. In a speech before the National Governors Association, Gates had
argued that we need to spend our limited education budget on
disciplines that produce the most jobs. He implied that we should
reduce our investment in the liberal arts because liberal-arts degrees
don’t correlate well with job creation. Three days later, at the
unveiling of the iPad 2, Steve Jobs had said: “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 result that makes
our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC
Here is what I wrote for The Times.
It’s commonly believed that engineers dominate Silicon Valley and that
there is a correlation between the capacity for innovation and an
education in mathematics and the sciences. Both assumptions are false.
My research team at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief
executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology
companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated: 92 percent
held bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent held higher degrees. But only
37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just
two percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields
as diverse as business, accounting, finance, health care, and arts and
Gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of
the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was
in and the school that it was obtained from were not a significant
Over the past year, I have interviewed the founders of more than 200
Silicon Valley start-ups. The most common traits I have observed are a
passion to change the world and the confidence to defy the odds and
It is the same in business. In the two companies I founded, I was
involved in hiring more than 1000 workers over the years. I never
observed a correlation between the school of graduation or field of
study, on one hand, and success in the workplace, on the other. What
make people successful are their motivation, drive, and ability to
learn from mistakes, and how hard they work.
And then there is the matter of design. Steve Jobs taught the world
that good engineering is important but that what matters the most is
good design. You can teach artists how to use software and graphics
tools, but it’s much harder to turn engineers into artists.
Our society needs liberal-arts majors as much as it does engineers and scientists.
But here is a harsh reality: that
employment prospects are dim for liberal-arts majors. Graduates from
top engineering schools are always in high demand, but PhDs in English
from even the most prestigious universities often can’t get jobs. The
data I presented above were on the background of tech-company
founders—those who made the transition into entrepreneurship. Most
don’t. And, as you can note from Bill Gates’ speech, there is a bias
against liberal arts and humanities.
So students of the humanities need to be prepared for a difficult slog.
They will need to work harder than engineers do to find their way into
the realm of entrepreneurship. And they will have to use their
advantage of creativity to force their way into key roles. Then they
can do that magic that Steve Jobs did with his elegant inventions.
You can read more on my website: www.wadhwa.com or follow me on Twitter:@wadhwa.
Cartoon Credit: Shutterstock: 3D render of a Robot playing the violin