The Forum | General Education

Intern Blog: Silicon Valley Titans Prove the Value of the Liberal Arts

July 31, 2017

Often, it is assumed that the liberal arts and STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are at odds. The liberal arts are increasingly viewed as outmoded. Professors often prioritize research in hyper-specialized fields, while students are increasingly drawn to vocational coursework and technical training that promise a job after graduation. However, powerful leaders in business and technology, hailing from Silicon Valley itself, espouse the indispensable skills that a liberal arts education provides.  

Builds clear and effective communicators.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, studied electrical engineering and computer science while at Princeton, but he also stresses the value of writing, which develops clear thinking. In fact, Bezos frowns on presentations—or “death by PowerPoint”—because he believes there’s not enough critical thinking involved in creating them. Instead, he requires Amazon senior managers and executives to compose written memos, which must be read together in management meetings. Bezos describes the value of this process: “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not to have clear thinking.” By emphasizing analytical writing, Amazon—a technological behemoth—is better able to develop clear visions for its products.

Strengthens critical thinking.

Functioning in a complex organization requires the ability to analyze and synthesize disparate information and facts. Carly Fiorina—former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and the first woman to lead a Fortune Top-20 company—similarly credits her success to her liberal arts education. She earned degrees in philosophy and medieval history from Stanford University before going on to study marketing and management in graduate school. While speaking at James Madison University, she described taking a medieval philosophy course: “I was fascinated by seeing the human race learn generation by generation. None of this was going to help me get a job, but I wasn’t thinking about that.” She then explained the value of thinking differently: “If you go into a setting and everybody thinks alike, it’s easy. But you will probably get the wrong answer.” Her liberal arts training prepared her to integrate multiple points of view and form comprehensive solutions, skills essential to her business success.

Encourages Innovation.

Technology can be fleeting: New releases supersede old ones, and new professions emerge as old jobs become obsolete. A liberal arts education allows us to continue to innovate and thrive in a changing landscape by facilitating critical thinking, analysis, and ingenuity. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs observed as much when unveiling the iPad 2: “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.” Technology on its own is insufficient. It functions best when built on a concrete intellectual foundation.

The giants of Silicon Valley remind us that the liberal arts remain vital in our technologically advanced world, precisely because they foster well-rounded, adaptable individuals who will continue to shape technological progress. Today’s college graduates need a thorough and effective core curriculum if they are going to match up and America’s colleges and universities must lead the way. 

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the first in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. This spring, Joey graduated from Ashland University. He also was an Ashbrook scholar at the Ashbrook Center, an ACTA Oasis of Excellence. In the fall he will begin work on his Ph.D in American Politics at Hillsdale College.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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