Political science major and entrepreneur David Kalt writes ‘Why I Was Wrong About Liberal-Arts Majors’ in the 1jun16 WSJ. There he argues from his experience that it’s really the liberal arts majors - philosophy, history, music, … - who have the best background to become what he knows as “computer programmers”. Why? Because those are the majors in which students learn critical thinking skills that they then can readily transfer to their new jobs as programmers when they learn a programming language.
Kalt intends this proposition to go a long way in satisfying our expanding thirst for STEM workers. No doubt liberal arts majors can learn programming languages and join the workforce as stock programmers – sometimes known as ‘code monkeys’ in our trade – but they in no way can join the ranks of the technology developers who design and build the new systems that expand what society can do and also encroach into the workspaces formerly dominated by humans.
To be sure, code monkeys serve much needed functions in fielding and maintaining software systems. But because of their deficit in math based engineering and science areas, in high-tech companies they are relegated to writing code to specifications provided by others who majored in the strong STEM subjects. Kalt’s myopia in this is understandable since his experience as an online retailer (Reverb.com) for “musical instruments and gear”, and as co-founder of online brokerage firm optionsXpress required the building of interactive procedural websites that had a UI at one end and talked to an API (applications program interface) of an established database or another online service at the other end. In short, programming tasks that require very little in the form of a math-based background.
His assertion that today liberal arts majors learn critical thinking skills is also suspect. First, he implies that a technical education somehow does not require such thinking, that it is “constrained by memorizing commands or syntax”, or at best comes in somewhere far behind those skills which liberal arts majors command. That is a gross error which is easily forgiven to a political science major. And the error is compounded in today’s academe where critical thinking in the liberal arts has long been replaced by the lockstep consumption of politically correct tenets which the student must then parrot back to his overwhelmingly progressive professors.
The truth is that there simply is no substitute for tech workers who are well-steeped in math and the math-based engineering and sciences. It is the maths which require true critical thinking skills which are then developed by those who survive the rigors and master their curriculum. This is not to say that other students possessing such qualifications don’t wind up in the liberal arts in unemployable numbers - it was ever thus. But it does point to the need for communities like Nevada County to attract and nurture kids into STEM careers as early as possible. For off beaten path communities like ours to develop economically “we need to build people who can build companies”, as recently observed by a friend, colleague, and well-known local business owner. And these companies will attract STEM workers into our woods who are satisfied that our schools can properly educate their kids.