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01 June 2016


Russ Steele

His article was written with the insight of a liberal arts student.

David Kalt
University of Michigan
Bachelor of Science, Political Science
Sep, 1985 - 1989

That said, I was engaged in a conversation with a One Star General in charge of HQ SAC Information Systems. We were discussing the lack of engineers in the Air Force and the need for programmers. Actually, I was trying to steal one of his programmers, but that is another story. SAC had started an in-house programmer training program to make up for the lack of commissioned and enlisted programming talent. It turned out the best candidates according to the General were liberal arts students, as they were easier to train than engineers with no programming experience. Granted, they were not building the system, but just writing code to perform tasks on the machine. They were writing code using IBM card decks on a CDC 3000. I was learning Fortran at the University and used to slip my card decks through a hole in the wall deep in the basement of SAC HQ. The next day I picked up my printouts and card deck wrapped in paper and secured with a big rubber band from a cubby in the same wall. Never saw the machine. I just pretended to be just another code monkey with a tray of IBM cards and some punch card chaff on my blue tie. I learned to hate punch card machines. The next semester I found a little-used PDP-11, with a CRT terminal and a networked printer. Yea, just another liberal arts student learning to program. BS in Social Science, with a year of Air Force Electronics Training, and self-taught assembly language programmer on a home built computers using an RCA 1802 chipset and hex keypad.

George Rebane

RussS 406pm - OK, that's consistent with what I reported that Kalt wrote recently. Do you have any conclusion to offer from what you dug up?

Russ Steele


I am in agreement with what you wrote, and I missed you had identified his education back ground. It is one thing to write code and it another to develop the systems the code is written on, the underlying architecture and the operating system that glues it all together. I think that Kalt is writing about code development today, which is aided by a host of tools, that were not available when we were managing code projects. For example, to build a web page one needed to know HTM and how the computer rendered it, now web pages can be developed with drag and drop symbols, photos and some word processing text dumped into simulator that identifies the coding errors. It is no longer an engineering task, but a design task. Kalt's programer would have a hard time developing and AI system, if all they knew was how to code. Although, they might be able to take Google's Open Source AI Engine (developed by engineers) and wraps some code around it to prompt input and format the output.

In my own experience, I find my ability to do some to the things I would like to do hampered by my lack of math skills. Your tutoring has been helpful, but I forget too much when I do not use the math tools day in and day out.

Recalling more of my conversation with the General it was his view that engineers were narrow thinkers, focused on what they new best, where as the liberal arts grads thought more broadly, and were more open to new ideas and concepts. I think to solve engineering problems one needs to be focused and well versed in the tool sets used by engineers to solve problems. Those are not skills of code monkeys. Systems problems need more open minded conceptual approaches. Open mindedness is shunned in today's universities.


The correct answer is, 'C' - all of the above.
It is not whose education, major, or emphasis is 'best' because it takes both 'out of the box' (macro view?) as well as 'in the box' (micro view?) thinking to build an Apple. Isn't that how it went? Jobs was the philosopher, and Wozniak was the STEM techie. Together they achieved success.

George Rebane

BradC 711am - I made no argument about "best". It was Kalt who argued that liberal arts majors made the best critical thinkers. Re your Apple point: STEM workers more often than not are also philosophers, artists, historians, ... , and again more often than not need no dedicated liberal arts partners to develop and market life changing technologies. History overflows with such examples.

However, the converse is not true. Liberal arts majors with sufficient STEM skills are extremely rare, more rare yet in the arena of successful technology launches; they all need STEM partners. In my case, I am not only skilled in STEM, but have also been acknowledged (at the university level) for my abilities as a philosopher, historian, political scientist, ... . And as the literature shows, by no means are such people unique; careers such as mine overflow with colleagues having similar abilities to contribute in multiple fields and then bring them together to introduce something revolutionary to human knowledge and/or enterprise. The kids I mentor today are not one-tune-bands that most liberal arts majors conceive, but excel in sports and the various arts in addition to being extremely bright in their STEM pursuits. In short, the world is asymmetrical, a liberal arts major is neither necessary and most certainly not sufficient to expand technology based human experience.


Dr.R@833am - I was also referring to Kalt's use of 'best'. I kind of thought Kalt's use of 'best' might have had something to do with your original post. My post was made only to say that I think many/most successful endeavors are (or can be) a collaborative process between specialists and generalists.

To your point about liberal arts majors not being necessary; I think that is why colleges often require students to take classes in something other than their chosen area of focus. Liberal arts majors may take STEM related classes, and visa versa.

Somebody has to teach the next crop of STEMies those philosophy classes. I suppose it could be a nuclear physicist;)

In general, I do see your point and agree with you. I think young kids should develop their STEM skills as early and fully as possible. But music and foreign language study at an early age can also help develop the brain. The philosophy can come later at home and on the playground.

George Rebane

BradC 1110am - OK Mr Croul, I do think we understand each other and are in general agreement. Yes, it is more than useful to have STEM undergraduates take courses outside their major field. At UCLA I took three years of German (including reading some of the classics in the original Old German), history courses, English (literature, composition), and music (also 4 years of ROTC, Military Science was one of my minors). All of us science and engineering majors were required to broaden our perspectives. On top of that I was also in the 'greek system' (Theta Xi Fraternity) where I met the wife of my life (AOPi), and considerably broadened a whole new set of horizons ;-)


Youse guys are confusing "liberal arts" with humanities or social sciences (the latter being a superfluous category since a "social science" is about humanity almost by definition), and as far as where might one find someone who could become a decent programmer is concerned, I think it was General Electric a half century ago that delved into that and found Music majors fit the bill nicely... and that shouldn't be too surprising as Music is a highly structured and mathematical language that, along with algebra, geometry and physics was one of the four pillars of the Quadrivium which followed the three pillars of the Trivium, logic, rhetoric and grammar in a classical liberal arts university education.

A liberal arts education in basketweaving doesn't have much more value to me than a trade school class in basketweaving, and if one has to borrow money to gain a degree, avoiding basketweaving classes of all types is a real good idea.

Currently in the US, a liberal arts education in math, science or engineering at this college is associated with the highest midcareer salaries in the country. Your mileage may vary...

jon smith

After reading "Still wrong about liberal arts" was thinking it would be great if a Harvey Mudd alum would interject.

George Rebane

Gregory 1223pm - I presume that a strong letter to Mr David Kalt is in the mail.


George, I'm at a loss to understand what you think I should write to him about as, after reading the article, I'm unsure whether I agree more with you and Russ, or him. He's running a music business and getting a music or art type up to speed on Ruby on Rails is probably easier than getting a tunnel vision Computer Science grad with no life that isn't pixelated up to speed on music and the art scene.

To me, liberal arts means not only grammar, logic and Rhetoric (the Trivial Arts) but everyone studying math, physics, chemistry and music enough to have a common basis for the exchange of ideas with any and all. I've met too many folk with degrees in Computer Science who don't know anything that isn't digitized and too many with BA degrees in Disgruntled Studies who don't know anything.

Bonnie McGuire

Although this discussion is somewhat boring because liberal arts isn't explained, I'll attempt to fill in the blanks. The liberal arts are those subjects or skills considered essential for a person to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were the core liberal arts, while arithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy played a lesser part in education.

Today, liberal arts education is a term that can refer to certain areas of literature, languages, art history, music history, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology, and science. It can also refer to studies that cover biological and social sciences as well as the humanities. For both interpretations, the term generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational, or technical curriculum. Hope this help, and you don't mind my posting it.

George Rebane

BonnieM 1038pm - Actually my post takes Kalt's definition of liberal arts that appears to be the evolved modern one, and not the 'classic version' that you and Gregory have reminded us about. Kalt, and most writers today use 'liberal arts' to mean the humanities plus the classic liberal arts minus the STEM subjects. I'm not defending this revised definition, but only pointing out what seems to have evolved over the last 20 years or so. In short, today liberal arts seems to be used as the curriculum complementary to the STEM subjects giving people a very simple and accessible view of the two main categories of subjects taught in higher education. Kalt's piece is a poster child of this new view.


Let's make it simple... what many want "liberal arts" to refer to is fields of study that don't require any significant math. The easy stuff of the Trivium, from which we get the word "trivial".

This isn't an evolution of the meaning, it's a devolution. There's a perfectly good word which fits better than "liberal arts" for such a mathematics free education... the humanities. Much simpler than "the humanities plus the classic liberal arts minus the STEM subjects", especially since the humanities generally include the trivial arts, grammar, rhetoric and logic (at least the conversational kind... formal logic is closer to math) and in modern usage, music is considered one of the humanities.

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