Should Thomas L. Friedman and Google Go Back to School?

Yesterday morning I read a couple articles that, in relative juxtaposition, conspired to trigger this response. One was an innocuous piece about some high schooler getting suspended for asking the school’s visiting lecturer to prom during an assembly. The speaker happened to be Miss America. The other was a well-intentioned New York Times op-ed by Thomas Friedman about how to get a job at Google.

What do these two (very different) pieces have to do with one another? Simply this: each is a story about the STEM fields (Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) that either excludes or minimizes the role of the arts and humanities.

Let me acknowledge up front that I’m not one to advocate for arts and humanities over the STEM fields. I’m a devoted, if often novice-level interdisciplinary scholar, with an article recently published on the intersection of literature and mathematics and a current set of collaborative and interdisciplinary projects underway with scholars trained in biology and the computer sciences. I also actively promote cross-disciplinary conversations in my role as director of the BYU Humanities Center. But, like many humanists, I find the state of public discourse concerning the arts and humanities sorely lacking, and our lack of sophistication on these subjects often reveals itself in the stories we tell and the arguments we make, or fail to tell and make as meaningfully as we might.

The story about the attention-seeking teen is silly, but symptomatic. Many high schools, businesses, and government agencies are trying to drum up student interest in the sciences and mathematics, and that’s fine: I wish somebody had found a way to inspire in me a love of geometry even 3.14% the magnitude of what I felt for a girl over whom I fawned unrequitedly my junior and senior years. And by arranging for Miss America to play the part of oracle, Central York High in Pennsylvania was clearly appealing to types like the juvenile me. But news outlets didn’t pick up this story because of what Nina Davaluri had to say about cognitive science (her major at the University of Michigan), but because of the ardor of a reckless Romeo and the humorous consequence of his fifteen seconds of fame. In other words, the story wasn’t a story until it acquired humanistic angles (about affection, misbehavior, and the individuality-crushing tendencies of institutions).

The Friedman article is more complicated. It clearly means well, and his interlocutor in the piece – Laszlo Bock, in charge of hiring at Google – has some good things to say about blending STEM learning with the liberal arts. But underlying this superficial endorsement are two naïve assumptions.

First, this gem:

“Shuffling through résumés of some of Google’s 100 hires that week, Bock explained: ‘I was on campus speaking to a student who was a computer science and math double major, who was thinking of shifting to an economics major because the computer science courses were too difficult. I told that student they are much better off being a B student in computer science than an A+ student in English because it signals a rigor in your thinking and a more challenging course load. That student will be one of our interns this summer.’”

Perhaps Laszlo primarily hires coders who need to prove their bona fides in computer science. Well and good. But the bit about the humanities being easy – more specifically, about their lack of rigor – has been debunked over and over, as the head of hiring at Google clearly would see were he run a simple Google search (or cast a glance at BYU’s  Humanities+ blog).

Second, Laszlo has some strange ideas about the relationship of creativity and critical thinking:

“Bock: ‘Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical, structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn. One of the things that makes people more effective is if you can do both. … If you’re great on both attributes, you’ll have a lot more options. If you have just one, that’s fine, too.’ But a lot fewer people have this kind of structured thought process and creativity.”

Appended to the quote above, Laszlo’s point seems to be that the arts and humanities foster creativity (even though it’s something we’re supposedly born with anyway), whereas the STEM fields make us more logical. But even read discretely, the claim overlooks basic university truisms that link all fields. Any college-level literary analysis must negotiate the relationship between creativity and critical efficacy (say, in relating a poem’s aesthetic effects to its rhetorical mechanics). It’s also true, of course, that imaginative innovations happen all the time in the STEM fields (which, as with literary analyses, are then reconstructed analytically). This is the stuff of genius, sure. But it’s also part of a quotidian university education, as the humanities are especially equipped to explain on both historical and philosophical grounds.

Gratifyingly, Laszlo remarks that “the most interesting things are happening at the intersection” of STEM disciplines and the liberal arts. I wholly agree, as multiple humanities-related undertakings attest (perhaps most photogenically the digital humanities). But the article’s inability to illustrate this convergence – at least in a way that seems sufficiently creative or analytical – inadvertently inspires the unhappy impression that venues for disseminating information, even our most iconic ones (traditional news media: The New York Times; Internet: Google), display disconcerting lapses of cognitive and expressive clarity. What the article says is right: we need dynamic, cross-disciplinary forums for the exchange of diverse ideas. But what the article implies, perhaps despite itself, is that we (still) need them attached to universities and the habits of mind cultivated there, not to movers-and-shakers who imagine the university primarily as a conduit to the work force.

The role of the university shouldn’t be a subject for Philosophy 6000, it should be Composition 101. And in the spirit of coding, I’d give Friedman’s article a C++. Minus one +.

–Matthew Wickman

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1 Comment

  1. Nice retort, Matt! I read Friedman’s article, too, and it certainly sounded like Laszlo was angling for a one-dimensional employee. Might be fine for someone who’d be hunkered down deep in their programming tasks. He back-pedaled later in the piece, but it didn’t convey the image of the dynamic workforce one might imagine to be in place for a company such as Google.

    Bill Klem
    San Dimas, CA

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