It’s a no brainer: Liberal Arts are awesome

More than 10 years ago, Daniel H Pink in his book A Whole New Mind predicted that “Right Brainers will rule the world”. He suggested that our brains are divided into two hemispheres. The left hemisphere is sequential, logical, and analytical. The right hemisphere is nonlinear, intuitive, and holistic. Years later, it became clear that there is not any scientific ground for establishing such a biological distinction. Nonetheless,

[…] the differences between the two hemispheres of the brain yield a powerful metaphor : the defining skills of the previous era—the “left brain” capabilities that powered the Information Age—are necessary but no longer sufficient. And the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous—the “right-brain” qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning—increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders. For individuals, families, and organizations, professional success and personal fulfillment now require a whole new mind. “

I am not really sure how education systems should be adapted to this theory or how early one should start tailoring education to each child’s affinity. But I know that in Tunisia, most people are doing it wrong. Parents say the stupidest shit to their kids, stuff along the lines of :”You’re going to be a great doctor” or “a great engineer” as if those were the only horizons one could hope for.

Regardless of their personality and personal preferences, whether they are analytical thinkers or divergent thinkers, most students find themselves in high school, in some “scientific” track, managing a disturbing amount of math and too little languages or liberal arts.

The ministry of education seems to approve of this narrow vision, since the impact of the liberal arts on the Baccalaureat results can only encourage the students to disregard them even more. The ministry then further institutionalizes this nonsense and establishes every year for the recent high school graduates a hierarchy of the different disciplines and the professions: This year, being a dentist is somehow more “honorable”than being an architect, being an engineer is more “important” than getting a degree in Spanish and being an economist is more “difficult” than becoming a historian.

I have to admit that I am fuzzy on the details and I think everyone is. Very little information is given on how this ranking is established. The process lacks transparency to say the least. And quite frankly, it’s pretty understandable. How on Earth would you justify or rationalize a senseless hierarchy between such disparate subjects.

Every year the ranking is different but what remains is that the place of liberal arts (as opposed to STEM fields) in our society continues to be secondary, as some luxury that only few can afford or as a difficult sacrifice only few are willing to make.

This should worry us the most, not because we should be nice to “artsy people” and give them a chance but because we’re all better off when everyone does what they love.

3 major points come to mind:

Divergent thinkers are smothered by the system

Can we take a minute and think about all the kids that hate school? What about all the bad engineers and the sad doctors and the depressed scientists.

Those are most probably creative people who “chose” a track that is too left brained for them.

They probably wanted deep down to be painters or writers but never has the courage to admit it to themselves because they thought that there was no way of earning a living in those professions.

Either that or their parents didn’t allow them to pick whatever they wanted because again.. they don’t think that they can earn a decent living.

Now news flash everybody, work is not some tiny detail in your life. It’s a 9 to 5. AKA 1/3 of your day. The other third you spend getting ready to get to work or back home, and the other third you spend sleeping.

Work is essentially modern day slavery so you might as well spend those hours doing something you like. Because the alternative looks pretty bleak to me regardless of how much money you pile up.

Left brainers could also use some soft skills

In 2006, David E. Goldberg, a scientist and engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote “The entrepreneurial engineer”. The preface of his book shows how the new globalized market dictates radical changes in the teaching of engineering: technology alone is no longer sufficient. Emotional Intelligence is necessary. Goldberg presents emotional intelligence as the only guarantee of success. He suggests that Entrepreneurship is not a science or a binary discipline. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Understanding one’s leadership and decision-making style is as crucial as one’s technical background. The same goes for communication and design. Hence, it is crucial for engineers (the analytical thinkers) to foster and develop new skills in order to become more innovative. Engineers must learn from and communicate with those who can teach them these qualities, i.e the divergent thinkers, those very people our educational system is smothering year after year.

Unfortunately, Emotional Intelligence is a set of skills that our engineers and tech-professionals do not have proper training for. As you may all know, these skills are completely neglected in our educational system and replaced with more hours of coding and math.

The greater good

This all sounds good, but what’s better is that, the benefits of Liberal Arts are not just personal fulfillment for right and left brainers alike. It’s actually for the greater good of our nation.

This amazing piece by Fareed Zakaria hits the nail right on the head. He very cleverly explains why the United States remains one of the main leaders of technology in the world. It’s not just because they have the best coders or the best engineers or even the biggest investments. He proposes that instead, the secrets behind the Silicon Valley’s success are the creativity and social skills of it’s professionals, the so-called “soft skills”. He even warns that the STEM education China and India heavily rely on is just an illusion of knowledge and a mere promise of success because it lacks the right brain ingredients that would make them a real threat to American tech.

Emotional intelligence and integrating the divergent thinkers in our Tech-Economy is the only comparative advantage that we can bet on. They will allow us to find our place in a market invaded with South East and East Asian abundant and fast growing technologies.

However, if our governments further this illusion that technology alone is our savior, without adapting the analytical thinkers to innovation, entrepreneurship, as well as communication, and without taking advantage of the divergent thinkers, their intuitive skills and their artistic ingenuity, I fear that we will not be prepared to face the competition.



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