Is Majoring in Liberal Arts a Mistake for Students?
Vinod Khosla
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I’m still reading this challenging piece. I teach in a program at UC Berkeley called Interdisciplinary Studies. I try to get my students to read as soon as possible a few works that I think match what you are asking for: Richard Nisbett, Mindware; Charles Wheelan, Naked Statistics or Gary Smith Standard Deviations; and Jon Elster Explaining Social Behavior. I then recommend that they take more advanced statistics courses. I do agree that educated students should be able to read The Economist and Technology Review, and these books give students some of the tools to do so. Students need to understand biology to understand the potential and ethical questions around, say, stem cell research; they have to understand physics to assess the threat of nuclear weapon proliferation in, say, Iran. So I think what you are saying is absolutely right.

At the same time, I think students should read works such as The Odyssey and the Mahabharata, the Republic and the Arthashastra (perhaps compared to the Ashokan edicts) as well as Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and Darwin’s Origin of Species. These classic works give us a deep understanding of the human condition: what is a good life; what is justice; what are our duties; what is science; what is its value; who are we?

Yet I agree that we have to teach the skills to navigate the modern world: programming, the visual representation of quantitative data, scientific evaluation of theories, and heuristics to come up with new ideas.

The university is in a process of flux, so I welcome your attempt to rethink what a liberal arts education has to look like in the 21st century.

My older daughter is in junior high music school — the Crowden School. There is a lot of interesting cognitive science on musical experience; yet there is also the role of music of providing us in a post-religious world something transcendent and beautiful without which we cannot do. The philosopher Gary Gutting has recently made this argument. I do wish for my students to acquire the ability to appreciate the greatness of great art.

Rakesh Bhandari