Humanities and Innovation

Students in vocational fields (engineering, business, finance, etc.) often think about general education courses, and especially humanities courses, as a check-list of useless hurdles to get past in order to graduate. Tuition-paying parents and career advisors under pressure from higher ups to get students to graduate quickly can often reinforce this view by discouraging students from double majoring or even minoring in “impractical” fields such as literature, philosophy or foreign language.  

Could it be that a purely practical approach to education is all wrong?

If we take Steve Jobs as an example, the answer is clearly “yes”. Jobs is “great” not simply because of his technical education but because he was an innovator. He was able to imagine the technological products and services people would desire before they existed. How was he able to do this?

A new book, The Innovator’s DNA, studies successful CEO’s and cites five common traits of innovative behavior: questioning, experimenting, observing, associating and
networking, which they claim must be coupled with a “ceaseless
curiosity and willingness to take risks.” Breakthrough ideas, they argue, do not come from purely disciplinary or linear thinking, they are fueled by diverse experiences and ways of thinking, i.e., the kind of experiences and thinking that come from intellectual exploration and not from blind focus on one simple goal (studying one discipline, quick graduation, making money, acquiring trophies of success, etc.).

This information on innovative behavior could, of course, easily evolve into a new kind of check-list in students’ hands. Jobs himself has a better idea: open your mind… study the liberal arts. Jobs: “The reason that Apple is able to create products like iPad
is because we always try to be at the intersection of technology and
liberal arts, to be able to get the best of both.”

Read more on Jobs and The Innovator’s DNA here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/technology/steve-jobs-and-the-rewards-of-risk-taking.html?hp

Read more on Steve Jobs and the Humanities in an earlier H+ post here: http://humanitiesplus.byu.edu/2010/01/steve-jobs-touts-liberal-arts.html

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