From Classical Studies to Computer Science: modern-day philosophers and “doers” in liberal arts

Jenny Howard

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something an LSA alumnus who graduated in 1984 once said about his liberal arts experience at Michigan.  He told me that getting a degree from LSA taught him that he knew nothing.  Simply, his degree made him aware of all that he still needed to learn.  I’m not sure if he knew it at the time, but he was quoting Socrates. (“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”)

Tell me if these sound familiar: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” “Know thyself,” “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom,” et cetera.  All brought to you by Socrates.

We all know much more about Socrates than we think, whether we studied in LSA’s Department of Classical Studies or not.  Socrates is our man when it comes to liberal arts.  He urges us to take his advice to build a base of values for a well-lived life, and there is no better way to do that than with the broad education offered through a liberal arts degree.  The ability to be a lifelong learner, a curiosity about the world, confidence in one’s ability to learn—these values are the “sweet spot” of liberal arts.

Putting this into the context of 2011, the realists of this group are probably thinking what I’m about to say next: Socrates, your thoughts are all well and good, but societal expectations have changed.  A recent graduate these days can’t exactly walk into a job interview saying that what they got out of their college experience was four years of only sitting in a classroom.

I talk with a lot of my friends, fellow LSA graduates, about liberal arts in today’s world.  A lot of us studied what we loved.  We also studied abroad, we had summer internships, we were involved with the community as student leaders, and we know these experiences had much to do with getting our first jobs out of college.  In ways, that might be the key to a successful liberal arts degree:  looking at education as classroom experience as much as it is exposure to the world outside of the classroom.  UMich is known for these opportunities—in fact, we’re leading the way in offering these options for students.

Moving from Classics to Computer Science, let’s bring in a man of our time, Steve Jobs.  Forbes could not have said it better: Steve Jobs was the ultimate example of why a liberal arts education is invaluable.  Crediting what his broad education brought to his endeavors at Apple, he famously said, “It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that makes our heart sing.”  A concentration in anthropology isn’t necessarily vocational training for a career in consulting, but having that knowledge (or wisdom) can certainly give that grad an edge when it comes to understanding different cultures and working with different types of people.

A liberal arts degree was as relevant in Socrates’ time as it is in Steve Jobs’ (our) time, but the stakes have changed.  The challenge of our generation is to put those values into action in today’s world.  As is another tenet of the liberal arts, the right answer is about balance—let’s all live like Socrates and be aware and curious of what we don’t know, and let’s all live like Steve Jobs and apply those principles to the  “real world.”  Let’s all be doers in industry, government, and art, and let’s all do it creatively, with innovation in mind.

That’s where UMich comes in.  The “Leaders & Best” motto plays in pretty well with our ambitions to be innovators—to be leaders—in whichever field we choose.  And, we’re liberal arts grads, so the options are endless.

A Steve Jobs reading list:

  1. The Steve Jobs Way: iLeadership for a New Generation –recommended to me by an LSA alum who has read many a SJ book.  This one is the best, apparently!
  2. Walter Isaacson’s biography –Steve Jobs personally chose Walter Isaacson to write this book in 2009.
  3. For even more championing of the liberal arts, check out his Stanford commencement speech.

Jenny Howard is an advisor to the LSA Dean’s Young Alumni Council.


One thought on “From Classical Studies to Computer Science: modern-day philosophers and “doers” in liberal arts

  1. Jenny,

    Fantastic article. You nailed it, succinctly, a Liberal Arts degree teaches one how to think. Some of my best hires have been individuals with no relevant experience and a Liberal Arts degree. They see things from a different angles that my “most experienced” individuals cannot and in the industry that I am in, health care, we need these types of individuals, badly! Here’s to innovation and breaking the status quo!

    Best Regards,


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