love letter to the liberal arts
moving more than minds
This essay was written for young technologists: my friends, myself, and many other youthful souls. I wrote this piece because I want us to be happy and know that we are far more than just our brains.
It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing." — Steve Jobs
When you read that quote, what do you think? Do you nod along inside or does your mind stray a bit, entertaining the idea in concept but not fully buying it in practicality? To a young person in tech, Jobs’ quote may or may not ring true to you. You’re likely seen as a bright brain with a knack for solving problems, and what good are the liberal arts1 and the humanities2 in solving the world’s large, technically complex issues? You want your work to have impact and “matter” — something you know to require hard work, discipline, and things like “frameworks” and “mental models.” Tactical, practical, and efficient.
But consider, for a second, your thinking. Where did your thoughts and beliefs come from? What about your conviction, your mission, your sense of purpose on this earth? These questions are why the liberal arts and the humanities, or subjects distinct from professional and technical subjects, exist. In stark contrast to technology, the liberal arts and the humanities do not prize themselves on innovation and newness, they pride themselves on maintaining humanity’s understanding of itself. After all, Aristotle’s realizations about the meaning of life probably read remarkably similarly to tweets from your friends today.
It is difficult to advocate for the liberal arts by appealing to results or metrics. But our bias towards viewing these non-instrumental disciplines through a problem-solving lens is exactly why we need spaces that suggest other ways of seeing the world. While that lens grants impressive achievement, it might also leave you wondering why you were even chasing after the thing you achieved to begin with. Our goal is to show you that the problem-solving lens is one of many possible views you can have on the world. You can treat this view like a pair of glasses, one that ought to be regularly removed and replaced with a more reflective, contemplative, and critical lens.
Taking off those glasses is scary. The longer you wear them, the more your identity may grow attached to the praise and rewards you received from others admiring their clarity and sheen. But when you do take them off (by either choice or necessity), the liberal arts offer you a toolkit for making sense of the world. Inside is vocabulary for understanding universal human experiences and permission to gesture wordlessly at areas we will never understand but enjoy admiring all the same. At their core, the liberal arts and the humanities serve as aggregated documentation on the human condition — the kind of documentation that is meant to be digested, discussed with others, and revisited from whichever angles serve you best along your journey. As Aristotle would say: “πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται φύσει,” or “All humans aspire to know by nature.”
The culture and mentality that fuel technology today has a shelf life — both at an industry and an individual level. These are, of course, inextricably linked: tech culture’s high ask of your emotional energy quickly shortens the lifespan of each company’s culture and in turn, the industry itself. The ecosystem that we inhabit as technologists was not built with humans in mind, it was built to run laps around other industries within the capitalist game, and it does this on the backs of the young people it exploits. In simpler terms: the status quo of technology was not designed to make you a happy, content, morally well-rounded young person. That, however, is precisely the purpose of examining the world through a liberal arts lens. Through this frame of view, we might think thoughts without action items, try opinions on for size, celebrate contradiction, and revel in the pursuit of understanding both each other and the world around us.