Graduates must bridge divide between arts and science

Focus on science and technology to the detriment of arts and humanities is a big mistake

When I recently attended the project showcase by graduates in technology and psychology at the Institute for Art, Design and Technology (IADT), in Dún Laoghaire, I got an unexpected chuckle.

The guest speaker was the lively and upbeat Vodafone chief executive, Anne O'Leary, who rightly commended the students for undertaking courses that would offer employers a blend of sought-after skills.

Their degrees were far preferable to taking one in a subject such as, say, German literature, she said. Not that she had anything against German literature, but the degree wasn’t all that useful.

Not unless you want to run a company such as, say, Facebook, I thought.

The outgoing managing director of Facebook Ireland, Sonia Flynn, has a degree in exactly that subject. And it's taking her on to a newly created senior position within the Berlin-based music platform service SoundCloud.

I suspect a major selling point for such leading roles in EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) divisions of technology companies – along with her business and management nous – might just be the fact Flynn can speak a language besides English. And that she also has the cultural, historical, political and social insights one gains from broad familiarity with another culture's literary canon.

It also struck me at the IADT event, which was for a multidisciplinary set of degree programmes, that most of the projects contained significant elements from the arts and humanities. These were graduates who could navigate the interstices between arts and technology, in work that incorporated music, art, design, social sciences, psychology. And of course, that’s really the point O’Leary was making, too.

Which is all a way of saying that any country, any culture, that starts to focus on science and technology to the detriment of arts and humanities is making a big mistake.


Yes, there’s a shortage of the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) graduates. And this needs to be addressed.

But increasingly, and alarmingly, governments and university governing bodies are putting pressure on the third level to think more about filling empty Stem job slots with a targeted degree, rather than do what universities have done for hundreds of years: create rounded, informed, thoughtful, critically thinking graduates, whatever they study.

To that end, arts and humanities departments worldwide have found themselves slowly stripped of resources, with long-standing divisions and departments that represent the very essence of the humanities truncated or closed down. Witness the threats to classics and early history within Irish universities, for example.

But now more than ever, the broad capabilities that come from arts and humanities degrees need to be valued and retained.

One major problem is we still educate young people as if jobs exist only in science or arts silos. They never have.

Nearly three decades ago, for example, I had friends who were hired by the huge technology company Oracle in Silicon Valley. While my friends were computer graduates, they discovered Oracle had hired top graduates across the degree spectrum, including college athletes. What the company valued were the thinking, leadership, self-discipline and performance abilities of such people – not just whether or not they could code.


As O’Leary noted at the IADT launch, it is the interdisciplinary nature of degrees that is increasingly valued and needed. Many tech sector employers know that liberal arts skills – the ability to think, design, write, communicate, understand, analyse – are as crucial to overall market success as great coding.

As Steve Jobs famously said in one of his last keynotes: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Yet it seems that in our education systems we have advanced little since CP Snow wrote his famous essay The Two Cultures, on the perceived bifurcation between humanities and science, in 1959.

Tomorrow’s graduates need to more effectively bridge that divide. This means universities and national governments absolutely must rethink the too-narrow degree system, which in this country begins to isolate students into inflexible career paths from the point of the Leaving Cert.

And employers have a role, too. They need to be more active in providing on-the-job training and career development to get the employees they want.

There’s no easy solution for what is happening at third level or in the employment market, but the answer is not to produce another generation of people who end up confined within the intellectual and productivity walls of a single discipline.