Why Silicon Valley Wants Humanities Majors

The humanities aren’t dead in the digital age. In fact, they powered it. They’re helping us understand it. And they’re what let our young people hone their creative edge and succeed in it.

It’s no secret the traditional humanities in higher education, especially at the graduate level, are struggling. Fewer students are enrolling in humanities classes as undergraduates, and fewer graduates of humanities doctoral programs are finding the jobs they expected.

But slowly, scholars and universities are beginning to break down the longstanding divide between the humanities and STEM disciplines. Digital humanities researchers are mapping the spread of ideas, crowdsourcing digital archives, and making manuscripts accessible to answer timeless questions about what makes us human. Stanford University recently announced it is developing new majors that integrate computer science with humanities disciplines like English and music.

And engineers and entrepreneurs are taking note. When the New York Times asked techpreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa to write a 2011 opinion piece on where to spend higher education funds—on STEM or on liberal arts programs—they expected him to argue for STEM. But he didn’t.

Wadhwa and a team of researchers surveyed more than 650 CEOs and leading product engineers at more than 500 technology companies. They found that about half had earned a STEM degree at some point in their academic career (bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D.). The rest held degrees in a variety fields, including the humanities. “Gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company a founder started,” Wadhwa wrote. “But the field that the degree was in … was not a significant factor.”

Students of the humanities bring skills to the table that engineers don’t—like how to tell a good story. That’s a skill in high demand among tech businesses, as Silicon Valley chronicler Michael Malone discovered when he invited entrepreneur Santosh Jayaram to speak to his writing students. As Malone described it to the Wall Street Journal, he extended the invitation but begged Jayaram not to “dash their hopes” by telling them to leave the humanities.

But Malone, too, was surprised. “English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for,” Jayaram said. He explained that to create a successful tech startup today, you must research “that one undeveloped niche you can capture” and sell the idea to investors, partners, employees, and customers. “And how do you do that? You tell stories.” According to Jayaram, good storytellers are much harder to find than good engineers. “That’s why I want to meet your English majors.”

As Christine Henseler, a leading scholar in the digital humanities movement, wrote, “To write or represent a good story, we have to think about the power of the image, the sound, the word, the logic behind our arguments, the cultural perspectives of our audiences, the faith, or lack thereof, in what we do.” That’s what the humanities teach students.

The classroom discussions and group projects in history, English, and other humanities disciplines also foster social intelligence in a way that traditional STEM disciplines have not always done. “Social intelligence is not what schools specifically train people in, but the highest growth right now and the highest salaries go to people with high social intelligence skills. These are skills better fostered by the humanities,” said Kevin Stolarick, a researcher on the “creative class” who recently spoke at Pittsburgh’s Creative Industries Summit. (For more of his perspective, plus a look at our local creative class and our ability to attract and keep creatives, check out this post.)

The Kids + Creativity Network is helping Pittsburgh-area children and youth develop skills not only in STEM, but in arts and imagination—key building blocks of a humanistic world view. Projects like Crossing Fences, the Literary Arts Boom (The LAB), and Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media Program combine the best of the humanities—asking questions, reflecting on stories, and discovering the common elements of the human experience—with cutting-edge technology and communications tools. Thanks to these kinds of experiences, Pittsburgh’s next generation will seize—and likely, create—new pathways to integrate the humanities with STEM.


Photo/ Kaitlin Phillips

Published March 13, 2014