Is listening to tech entrepreneurs a mistake for students?

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Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla recently published an essay in Medium titled “Is majoring in liberal arts a mistake for students?” He posits that understanding technology, coding, and statistics are more important to young people in today’s connected world than the study of literature, history, religion, foreign languages, and other liberal arts subjects. In its place, Khosla argues for a “liberal sciences” curriculum that would cover the following five areas:

1. The fundamental tools of learning and analysis, primarily critical thinking, the scientific process or methodology, and approaches to problem solving and diversity.

2. Knowledge of a few generally applicable topics and knowledge of the basics such as logic, mathematics, and statistics to judge and model conceptually almost anything one might run into over the next few decades.

3. The skills to “dig deep” into their areas of interest in order to understand how these tools can be applied to one domain and to be equipped to change domains every so often

4. Preparation for jobs in a competitive and evolving global economy or preparation for uncertainty about one’s future direction, interest, or areas where opportunities will exist.

5. Preparation to continuously evolve and stay current as informed and intelligent citizens of a democracy

I appreciate Khosla’s provocation, and would never argue against the importance of learning logic and mathematics (both key components of the classic liberal arts curriculum). However, his article is absolutely wrong-headed, starting with its very conceptual framework—the sort of thing one learns to question in liberal arts courses.

Khosla’s deification of quantitative methods is typical of the scientism and technologism of Silicon Valley. This is the belief that better tools will necessarily makes us better people, that humanity is undergoing a process of enlightenment that will culminate in a perfect, rational, material understanding of reality, and that our tools will deliver us from the evils we have wrought upon this world.

But let’s get to some of Khosla’s points. First, I want to say that quantitative data are no more real or objective than qualitative data. Having recently begun to incorporate quantitative data and digital methods into my mostly qualitative research on classical Chinese literature, I know firsthand how much gets lost in the data-modeling process. Life, the universe, and everything doesn’t come divided up into neat categories: those are mental constructs which we impose on the world. It’s easy to reify them, to mistake them for being actual things “out there,” separate from ourselves.

Second (and relatedly), Khosla’s dichotomy between STEM and Liberal Arts is a relic of outdated thinking. The way I see it, both quantitative analysis (traditionally the province of STEM) and close reading (traditionally the province of Liberal Arts) are necessary ways to approach the world. In fact, they complement each other. Both are methods of selective interpretation: either selecting a few points of evidence and digging deep (close reading) or abstracting a few qualities from many points of evidence and plugging them in to mathematical models (quantitative).

Third, Khosla holds the classic STEM bias of presentism, the belief that understanding history is unimportant, or only important insofar as it helps us understand where we are today. But ignorance of history leads to an impoverished imagination.

One of the reasons why I research and teach a time and civilization radically different from the one I grew up in is because it reminds us of the contingency of the present. The way we live now is not the only way it has to be. Humanity is much richer, much more variegated than we could possibly imagine. If STEM majors didn’t engage the humanities (either in class or in leisure time), they would lack the empathy and vision to think creatively.

And perhaps if Khosala had spent a little more time studying liberal arts subjects like grammar and rhetoric, he’d know the difference between “it’s” and “its.” One of his parentheticals reads: “once a narrative has been built, it’s [sic] individual elements are more accepted [sic].”

Indeed, the same can be said of Silicon Valley’s narrative, which Khosla has swallowed wholly.

*UPDATE: Apparently I’m not the only one who finds Khosla’s article absurd. See this critique at The Register and this response at Medium.

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