The aim of a liberal arts education is to equip students with transposable skills useful in any career. The skills a liberal arts education emphasizes change based on the current state of society. The original skills were grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. From those, we’ve kept grammar and logic and added requirements for science, humanities, foreign languages and the social sciences. Times are once again changing, and it is high time to add a new skills requirement in technology.
In the last two decades, we have seen the computers change the way the world works. Yet distributional requirements at Yale and elsewhere have done little to reflect that. Yale does require a quantitative reasoning distributional credit, but this not a substitute for technological understanding. Quantitative reasoning aims to teach individuals to think about the world in a logical way and to become familiar with mathematical complexities, such as how to structure a proof. But most QR classes at Yale use paper and pencils as their primary tools. But technological classes should be oriented towards using programmable software.
The transposable skills necessary in today’s society include teamwork and proficiency with data. Whether you are a scientist searching for repeating sequences in the genome, an analyst deciding between strategies or a politician hoping to gerrymander your district to gain a majority for your party, the ability to process large amounts of data is a necessary competitive advantage. Frequently, there exists software to tackle these issues, but using that software effectively is difficult in itself. But, occasionally, you will hit a road block for which there will be no software to help you. And then you are going to have to write it yourself — or the guy down the hall will steal your glory.
Some jobs also require a big-picture understanding of how technology functions. The ability to understand search engine traffic is an important part of marketing, whether you are working to promote your own book, party or company. Marketing and technology were once separate domains; a radio host didn’t really need to understand how a radio works. That’s not the case anymore. Now, the better you understand search engine algorithms, the better of an Internet marketer you can be.
So what would a technology requirement at Yale look like? The purpose of such a class would not be to teach students a specific programming language; the programming environment it would emphasize — whether R, Excel or C — is of no real significance. What matters is that it would teach students how to create their own programs. Classes like this exist right now at Yale in many departments, and many students learn valuable technological skills in them — but many more would do so if they were made a requirement.
The ability to handle data in an automated fashion is an important part of any professional’s portfolio. Yale could secure a leg up in today’s increasingly technological world if it produced truly liberal arts-minded individuals — professionals who can focus on the thinking work involved in their jobs and delegate the busy work to their computers.
Pavel Kamyshev is a senior in Pierson College.