Lost Among Europeans

Humanities vs. engineering

A friend sent me a link to a recent NY Times article written by a humanities graduate working as a computer programmer [*]. It was a reaction against the belittling of the liberal arts in favor “useful” degrees that will get you jobs. I’m very much against this kind of view, which has recently regained momentum, given the global recession.

The best part of my software development job is the fuzziest, the most creative, and also the most frustrating: designing solutions to problems in a way that is flexible and understandable and can evolve. This is where programmers puzzle over tradeoffs, and the beauty of “code” (the name we give to computer programs). This does not get taught in university. Even where there are courses for it, I don’t think it can be taught well. It requires intuition and experience and persistence; it’s not a linear process.

Many people cast aspersions on the arts as useless, a waste of money, a plaything for the rich. I’ve had some colleagues who obviously had little appreciation of the arts, and I know many people who read books only if they’re job related. These people tend to produce documentation and talks that are as dry as dust.

A degree does not guarantee anything. Not in my field, not in any field. It does not guarantee that the graduates will have learnt the most important skills, will be good at their chosen career, and it also does not guarantee that they will get the kinds of jobs they want, or at least expect. I’ve conducted many job interviews with candidates with the “right” degrees who could not figure their way out of my toy problems.

The idea of turning university into an engineer factory is depressing. If there are people who would rather study literature, or music, or philology, then those choices should exist. And if some don’t want to attend university, why hold it against them?

I don’t understand this eternal push to make everybody miserable.

[*] To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf

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