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Liberal Education and Innovation, Pericles Lewis, Yale
Speech by Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College Symposium on University as a Source of Innovation and Economic Development Stanford Center, Peking University 4 October 2014 Enge Wang, …
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PERICLES LEWIS Yale University Liberal Education and Innovation
Speech by Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS CollegeSymposium on University as a Source of Innovation and Economic Development
Stanford Center, Peking University4 October 2014
Enge Wang, President, Peking University,
John Etchemendy, Provost, Stanford University,
Richard Saller, Dean, School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University,
Liberal education is among the most honored but also the most contested creations of the modern university system, a mode of learning broadly and deeply which has inspired new programs and schools throughout Asia and beyond, even as it has become a site of debate in the United States. 21st-century liberal education should draw on the traditional strengths of the liberal arts tradition, which I will describe today as a series of conversations. At the same time, I will recognize certain important criticisms of existing liberal education programs, which focus on the shaping of students’ characters through education. Finally, I will describe the founding of a new liberal education institution, Yale-NUS College, which is envisioned as a community of learning. I hope, then, to define what is living in the tradition of liberal arts education, what are its current failings, and what innovations can be introduced in order to re-envision this form of education for a complex, interconnected world.
I will speak broadly of liberal education, but I have in mind especially the form of education in the liberal arts and sciences practiced in the best colleges and universities in the United States, as contrasted with university systems that emphasize relatively early specialization, such as have been common in Asia at least since the Second World War.
While I myself attended a university with such a program, McGill University, where I took a three-year honors degree in English literature, my experience in graduate school at Stanford and as a faculty member at Yale University in the United States and more recently in Singapore at Yale-NUS College, has convinced me that a broader, four-year program spanning the breadth of the humanities and sciences promises a better foundation for future global citizens. In a broad sense, of course, my training at McGill was also a form of liberal education, and perhaps more important than the distinction between curricula with greater specialization or greater depth is the broad spirit of liberal learning which is present in many great colleges and universities and is certainly not the exclusive preserve of the American form of liberal education. So I am speaking today both about the specifics of a particular kind of curriculum and about the broader principles underlying liberal education in general. I should emphasize too that a liberal education includes science so I am not advocating for a liberal education at the expense of STEM education; rather, I think the two should be integrated.
There are at least five good reasons to pursue a liberal education, and to provide one for our students:
The most commonly cited reason, and a very important one, is to make students into better-informed citizens. By developing their critical reasoning skills, and by practicing the art of discussion and consensus in a classroom, they become better able to debate matters of public importance and to arrive at reasoned agreement, or reasoned disagreement, with their peers in the political sphere.
Another reason, equally valid and perhaps even more important to some parents and governments, is to create more innovative workers. Technical education is extremely important for the development of industrial society, but in the post-industrial world, employers value skills such as creativity, the ability to “think outside the box,” openness to multiple perspectives; and liberal education fosters these traits.
Certain forms of liberal education also prepare students well for life in a multi-cultural or cosmopolitan society by making them aware of a variety of cultures and the need to communicate effectively across cultures.
More fundamental than any of these, perhaps, is the ethical case for liberal education. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Liberal education fosters habits of self-awareness and self-criticism and makes us aware of the importance of examining our own prejudices and assumptions.
Finally, and most intangibly, liberal education allows the individual a greater enjoyment of life; whether it is in appreciating a work of art, understanding an argument in philosophy or an equation in mathematics, or exploring the diversity of the natural world. To be broadly educated provides pleasure and depth to the experience of life, something that has been recognized both in China and the West for centuries. It is recorded in the Analects that Confucius said, “’The gentleman is not a [one-purpose] vessel.’” 君子不器 (Analects [Lunyu] 2.11). As the Song-dynasty Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi [Shee] explains in his commentary to the passage: “Vessels are things that each fulfill a particular function yet cannot be used interchangeably. A man of accomplished virtue embodies [a broad learning] that incorporates everything, and thus he is completely well-rounded in his applications, and not merely someone who displays a single talent or skill.”
Why a Liberal Arts Education is More Important to Tech than You Think
Technology isn't just the result of science. It requires the imagination and vision of creative thinkers. That's why tech companies are looking for people with a liberal arts education.
Why a Liberal Arts Education is More Important to Tech than You Think
Last summer, Michael Litt, co-founder of Vidyard, revealed that he concentrates more of his company’s hiring strategies on people with a liberal arts education. This may sound counterintuitive in an era where organizations scramble to snag software engineers, big data scientists, AI programmers, and anyone with STEM skills. Yet, with the rush of exciting developments, it’s easy to forget power of our own minds. No breakthroughs occur without the imaginative thinkers who first envision the possibilities. And a small college in California, which produces some of the nation’s brightest STEM students, offers a powerful reminder that creativity is inseparable from science.
An Institution Where Liberal Arts and Science Intersect
Harvey Mudd College (HMC), a small university nestled in the bucolic Claremont valley near the San Gabriel Mountain foothills, is by charter a liberal arts school. However, Yahoo Finance noted that the institution has become a STEM powerhouse. Its graduates earn more on average than “those from Harvard and Stanford about 10 years into their careers.”
As Abby Jackson explained in the article, HMC combines STEM learning with liberal arts curriculum to give “students a broad scientific foundation and the skills to think and to solve problems across disciplines. The approach closely mirrors advice from some experts on how schools can develop students able to compete with automation, which has become an increasingly disruptive force in the labor market.”
Speaking to Business Insider, Jim Boerkoel, a computer science professor at HMC, said that every student must “take at least one computer-science course, which is fairly unique for many schools, particularly liberal-arts schools.” However, HMC’s introductory course extends far beyond the traditional approach. The syllabus encompasses programming, logic, software development, artificial intelligence and other highly relevant topics. When combined with the college’s already lauded humanities programs, students become “critical thinkers who improvise the way robots cannot.”
In terms of diversity, Jackson pointed out, the integration of arts and sciences led HMC to graduate “its first majority-female computer-science class” last year – huge progress in a space that still suffers from inequality.
HMC’s approach is so profound that faculty from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), one of the world’s foremost universities for delivering work-ready graduates, invited HMC professors to help train its own computer science staff.
Creativity: The Spirit that Runs the Machine
It’s fun to depict scientists as bespectacled, disheveled people in lab coats who pore over figures and formulas all day. Yet without imagination, vision and an understanding of society, it’s hard to believe that any real scientific accomplishments could flourish. Science requires creativity for continued innovation. No invention was envisioned without curiosity and ambition: the dreamer gazing at the stars in wonder, the biologist fighting to cure a terrible disease, the electrical engineer helping to overcome obstacles in the way of communications, and other pioneers motivated by a need to improve our quality of life.
Thomas Redman made a compelling case in a piece for Harvard Business Review. The best data scientists, Redman proclaimed, “get out and talk to people.” There persist nuances, introspective subtleties and quality issues in the data that can’t be determined by machines or analytical interpretations alone.
“They recognize that the world is filled with ‘soft data,’ relevant sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures that are yet to be digitized — and hence are unavailable to those working at their computers,” Redman observed of astute data scientists. “Think of things like the electricity in the air at a political rally and the fear in the eyes of an executive faced with an unexpected threat. They know they must understand the larger context, the real problems and opportunities, how decision makers decide, and how their predictions will be used.”
This sentiment is also echoed by astrophysicists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Adam Frank. Both scientists not only acknowledge the necessity of the humanities, they embrace liberal arts as a crucial backbone to scientific achievement. Speaking with NPR in February 2016, Frank advocated for the value of the arts in academia: “In spite of being a scientist, I strongly believe an education that fails to place a heavy emphasis on the humanities is a missed opportunity. Without a base in humanities, both the students -- and the democratic society these students must enter as informed citizens -- are denied a full view of the heritage and critical habits of mind that make civilization worth the effort.”
Frank provided a solid reason for his conclusion: “The old barriers between the humanities and technology are falling. Historians now use big-data techniques to ask their human-centered questions. Engineers use the same methods -- but with an emphasis on human interfaces -- to answer their own technology-oriented questions.”
In the future, computers will certainly assume a greater share of the duties currently tasked to human talent, including programming and data analysis. We can’t presume that automation won’t replace or commoditize certain skill sets. Realistically, however, there’s a limit to what machines will be able to do. As Rally Health’s Tom Perrault observed in Harvard Business Review, “What can’t be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success. And yet companies aren’t hiring for them. This is a problem for today’s digital companies, and it’s only going to get worse.”
Innovation Through the Liberal Arts
The next wave of great innovations that will push humankind forward is going to be found through a mindset of innovation through the liberal arts.
Innovation Through the Liberal Arts
By Akhil S. Waghmare, Crimson Opinion Writer
October 13, 2017 25
One of the iconic features of Harvard’s education is the liberal arts system. The underlying idea is to expose students to a wide variety of types of thinking. In contrast to this age-old academic idea is “innovation,” which seems to be the new buzzword for college campuses and young people. Although these two ideas sit at opposite ends of the timeline, they are inherently and necessarily intertwined.
Many times when we think of innovation in a particular field, we recall the fundamental advancements that drove the whole field forward. There are many examples of this phenomenon: the silicon-based transistor revolutionized the whole computer industry, the impressionist technique of art opened a new way to experience paintings. However, if we look at the truly great innovations of humankind, such as the wheel, writing, and democracy, these innovations have a different flavor. They don’t fit into any existing category―they force a whole new one to be defined.
In today’s world, one of the ways this can be achieved is by examining the intersection of otherwise unrelated fields. The liberal arts lend themselves to this exact approach, as students are exposed to many different subject areas that they can then mix together. Liberal arts are like a palette of primary colors, from which an infinite number of new colors can be mixed.
A classic story of this is Mark E. Zuckerberg and his creation of Facebook. During his time at Harvard, Zuckerberg, a former member of the Class of 2006, took classes in both Computer Science and Psychology. He noticed the concept of a “social network” in his psychology class and combined it with the idea of a “graph” in computer science. And so was born of one of the great tech companies of our generation.
This concept applies to ideas both big and small. Last year, the Harvard Graduate School of Education Innovation and Ventures in Education group hosted its second annual hackathon. Many of the ideas that came out of the event focused on using technology to help solve educational needs―matching high school students to colleges, building tools for the identification of learning disorders, and more. These new and innovative ideas came to be through the combination of concepts from technology, education, psychology, and other fields.
It is pretty obvious from these examples that fields in the humanities and social sciences can lead to new technologies. But can it work the other way?
One of the more popular ideas floating around technology innovation centers like Silicon Valley is “Design Thinking”, or designing products through user empathy. The process consists of identifying user needs, ideating and creating solutions that solve them, and then getting feedback to refine it. For example, at Airbnb, every new employee had to actually use the service within their first week, and based on their experience, identify problems in the service. They would then build new features to help fix these problems, get feedback from users, and change the feature if it was not the most effective.
It turns out that we can apply this same methodology to essay writing. For example, when we revise an essay, we first get the user to test the product, provide feedback, and then reiterate the product to make it a better experience for the user. We keep going through this cycle until the essay satisfies and delights the reader. Great essays can be written by following this process, informed through technology design.
The next wave of great innovations that will push humankind forward is going to be found through a mindset of innovation through the liberal arts. It seems Harvard is committed to following through on this idea. The Harvard Innovation Lab provides resources for students to collaborate on ventures across schools and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ mission statement notes, “To address current and future societal challenges, knowledge from fundamental science, art, and the humanities must all be linked through the application of engineering principles with the professions of law, medicine, public policy, design and business practice.”
These cross-field collaborations are what will ultimately help the University fulfill its mission―preparing students to be citizen-leaders of the future.
Akhil S. Waghmare ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House.Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.
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