Peer Review

Liberal Education Complements Engineering

It’s commonly believed that engineers dominate Silicon Valley and that there is a correlation between the capacity for innovation and an education in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) field. Both assumptions are grossly false. America’s progress has occurred due to collaborations between liberal arts and STEM disciplines. Purdue students should embrace the differences between students in STEM and the liberal arts. The divide between engineering and liberal arts students at Purdue is undeniable. It’s not uncommon to overhear engineering students comment that liberal arts students are majoring in unemployment. On the other hand, my friends in the College of Liberal Arts never fail to point out that engineering students are full of themselves.

By stereotyping people due to the perceived difficulty of their majors, many students judge intelligence based on a person’s major. In this scenario, at least at Purdue, students in pharmacy, engineering, and other science-related majors would be considered smarter than those in English or other liberal arts majors. That is a very simplistic, fallacious view. The valedictorian from my high school—possibly the smartest guy I know—is studying art history at Yale. He is by no means an abnormality. America’s most prestigious colleges are liberal arts powerhouses. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals requiring postgraduate studies tend to obtain their bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts as well as STEM fields.

I chose engineering because it gives me the opportunity to make an impact on real-world problems using my strong suits: math and science. Non-STEM professionals can have just as profound an impact. STEM professionals are in high demand and do drive the economy, but they don’t function alone. The norm of the day is interdisciplinary projects—those involving collaboration among multiple disciplines across science and art.

Research by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that based on income, liberal arts majors catch up with their engineering peers a decade after graduation. This is because skills gained from a liberal education—such as communication and flexibility—over time become more valuable in many careers. At any rate, many students earning liberal arts degrees are planning to attend graduate school. Furthermore, the majors people choose do not determine their future successes. According to a survey of 652 domestic chief executive officers at 502 technology companies, only 39 percent held degrees in engineering, computer technology, or mathematics.

According to the late Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple Inc., “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post–PC devices.” Motivation and a willingness to learn from mistakes makes people successful in their chosen fields. Regardless of their majors, once they master their fields, students can find paths to success.

Liberal arts majors are neither dumber than STEM majors nor poised for lower-paying jobs. Engineering students should appreciate the value brought to Purdue by liberal arts majors, while the latter should give engineering students a break when they are freaking out about problem-ridden semester projects. If we join hands, like Steve Jobs, we can create the next iPod. Or else, this debate will plague us until we graduate.


Reprinted with permission from the Purdue Exponent


Ronit Patnaik is a sophomore student at Purdue University.

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