View from the Board Chair: Liberal Arts

Creating and Re-creating America's Future

By Jeffrey B. Trammell    //    Volume 20,  Number 3   //    May/June 2012

Two hundred fifty years ago this spring, Thomas Jefferson graduated from the College of William & Mary. As chair of William & Mary’s governing board, on which Jefferson sat as an alumnus, I have often thought about the education it took to prepare him to write the Declaration of Independence at the young age of 33. The words he penned: “All men are created equal…with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” would change the course of humankind. What studies prepared him for this momentous assignment?

Historians agree that two of Jefferson’s W&M professors—William Small and George Wythe—were the driving forces. They exposed his young mind to the ideals and revelations of the Enlightenment. These two men were devoted proponents of the new thinking that the 18th century offered. Jefferson credited them with giving him an extraordinary education. Jefferson pursued classic liberal arts studies, including Greek, Latin, mathematics, philosophy, and physics among others, followed by the rigorous study of law.

Today the value of a liberal arts education is being questioned. One high-profile critic is Florida Governor Rick Scott, who famously slammed anthropology majors as being unprepared for productive careers. (His daughter holds a degree in anthropology from William & Mary, where our renowned anthropology department has long been involved in revealing the history of nearby Jamestown and other parts of our colonial heritage.)

Governor Scott called for steering his state’s educational funding away from the liberal arts. He and fellow critics question the value of investing in liberal arts education, as they fail to see immediate, tangible benefits for society.

But those of us who serve on governing boards should be aware that Scott’s analysis is short-sighted. A 2008 study by Duke University and Harvard University surveyed the CEOs and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. The researchers found that while 92 percent held bachelor’s degrees or higher, only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology. Clearly vocation-focused education, advocated by Scott, was not the path to success for many technology leaders.

Moreover, when it comes to how the American economy benefits from the liberal arts, we should listen to what Tom Friedman and Steve Jobs have said.

Friedman states: “Liberal arts are more important than ever” and must be “a priority because this is where and how so much innovation happens.” He adds: “It’s not that I don’t think math and science are important. They still are. But more than ever our secret sauce comes from our ability to integrate art, science, music, and literature with the hard sciences. That’s what produces an iPod revolution or a Google.”

Steve Jobs famously had a street sign on stage as he gave one of his presentations at Apple. One street was named “Technology” and the cross street was named “Liberal Arts.” Jobs 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 devices.” Jobs even credited a course in calligraphy that he audited at Reed College as the source of his vision for the design of Apple products.

Just as Jefferson’s liberal arts education prepared him to help revolutionize the world, become an inventor, and succeed at most challenges he undertook in life, the diffusion of knowledge he sought for all citizens remains today an essential part of the American mind. Chinese and other foreign economies suffer from the lack of a workforce that has the creative, critical thinking that comes from a strong liberal arts education and, for that reason, are sending their youth to study in America in record numbers. To be an American is to think outside the box, to seek the frontier, to rethink and invent. And a liberal arts education has frequently proven to be essential to that success, just as it was with Jefferson.

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