Fuzzies, Techies, and Insufficient Thinking

FuzzyAndTheTechieJacketCoverThe Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World, by Scott Hartley.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. ISBN 978-0544-944770 $28.00 List.

Hartley writes that a "false dichotomy" divides computer sciences and the humanities, and extends this argue to STEM curricula as well. For example, Vinod Khosla of Sun Microsystems has claimed that "little of the material taught in liberal arts programs today is relevant to the future." Hartley believes that such a mind-set is wrong, for several reasons. Such a belief encourages students to pursue learning only in vocational terms: preparing for a job. STEM field require intense specialization, but some barrier to coding (for example) are dropping with web services or communities such as GitHub and Stack Overflow. Beyond narrow vocational boundaries, Hartley argues that liberal arts educations widen a student's horizon, inquire about human behavior and find opportunities for products and services that will meet human needs. The "softer" subjects helps persons to determine which problem they're trying to solve in the first place.

That said, the book does not move much further. Hartley never really tries to provide a working definition for true "liberal arts" education except to distinguish it STEM or Computer Science. By using the vocabulary of "fuzzy" and "techie" he encountered at Stanford, he inadvertently extends a mentality that has fostered start-ups notably acknowledged to be unfriendly to women. So far as I could determine, a mere handful of Hartley's sources as noted were published elsewhere than digitally–although the "liberal arts," however defined, have a very long tradition of inquiry and literature that Hartley passes by almost breezily, and is very little in evidence. His book is essentially a series of stories of companies and their founders, many of whom did not earn "techie" degrees.

Mark Zuckerberg's famous motto "move fast and break things" utterly discounted the social and cultural values of what might get broken. Partly in consequence, the previously admired prodigies of Silicon Valley start-ups are facing intense social scrutiny in 2017 in part as a result of their ignorance of human fallibility and conflict.
Hartley is on to a real problem, but he needs to do much more homework to see how firmly rooted the false dichotomy between sciences and humanities is rooted in American (and world-wide) culture. The tendency, for example, to regard undergraduate majors as job preparation rather than as disciplined thinking, focused interest and curiosity is so widespread that even Barack Obama displayed it. ("Folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree" –Barack Obama's remark in Wisconsin in 2014; he did retract it later).

Genuine discussion of the values of humanities and STEM degrees can only take place with the disciplined thinking, awareness of traditions, and respect for diversity that are hallmarks of a true liberal arts education.

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