March 2, 2023

Humanities Degrees Are Vanishing, But Tech Innovation Depends on Hiring Creative Talent

Since 2013, the number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degrees has continued to soar, despite the purported and “distressing” digital skills gap. Yet over the same time, degrees in the arts and humanities have plummeted. This too is a big problem, even in context of our digital age, although few outlets want to talk about it. The reality is that without creative talent, the ideas that technology brings to life may also simply fade away. Let’s look at the intersection of technology and art, the importance of creative thinkers, and how to help them shine in today’s workforce.

The Swan Song of Humanities in Education?

In less than one second, Google search results — over 223 million of them — let me know that society is staring down a raging digital skills gap in the marketplace. And there’s no deficit of urgency attached to the stories. The articles are dire, ponderous, and many. “A third of American workers lack foundational digital skills,” studies have found. “Lack of tech skills is threatening digital transformation,” reports warn. “The digital skills gap is destroying growth,” other business analysts are prophesying. You get the point. 

Meanwhile, as Nathan Heller remarked in his New Yorker exposé “The End of the English Major,” American scholars are beginning to “wonder what it might mean to graduate a college generation with less education in the human past than any that has come before.”

“Fields like literature and history teach close, fact-based study and critical analysis with the goal of pulling up the rug to understand what’s going on beneath,” Heller wrote. These skills will remain essential, but they may be at risk. 

During the past decade, humanities enrollment overall has fallen by 17%. Heller cited Robert Townsend, co-director of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project, who illustrated the sharp decline in humanities-based education at universities from 2012 to 2020.

  • The number of graduated humanities majors at Ohio State’s main campus fell by 46%.
  • Tufts lost nearly 50% of its humanities majors.
  • Boston University saw 42% of humanities majors depart.
  • Notre Dame “ended up with half as many as it started with.”
  • SUNY Albany lost 75% of its humanities majors.
  • “Vassar and Bates—standard-bearing liberal-arts colleges—saw their numbers of humanities majors fall by nearly half.”
  • And in 2018, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point briefly considered eliminating 13 majors, including English, history, and philosophy, because student interest in the arts had vanished.

Technology and organizational strategies today are bound together in a world striving for performance improvement. It’s hard to dispute that every company has, in a sense, become a technology company. The digital world drives the material world to a tremendous extent these days. It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing. As economist Thomas Pinketty predicted in his groundbreaking work Capital in the Twenty-First Century, much of the economic growth we can expect to see will flow from advances in computing, artificial intelligence, data, and robotics. 

MIT Professor Zeynep Ton explained in The Good Jobs Strategy that even the most powerful systems require human input and judgment; a purely technological approach to work and civilization would eventually collapse. The relevance and importance of the human element can’t be ignored. Artificial intelligence (AI) can’t exist and grow without the context of the human experience to inform it. Cognitive scientists refer to this discrepancy as the availability bias: people tend to place greater emphasis on information that’s easy to come by, such as data on a spreadsheet, rather than intangibles like the realities involved in the everyday interactions and operations of a business.

So as we scramble to keep pace with technology and narrow our educational focus on STEM skills, we’re neglecting the very important role that creativity plays in the process.

Creativity: The Ghost in the Machine

It’s easy to succumb to the notion that scientists are stuffy, smock-wearing, bespectacled people obsessed with numbers and formulas. Yet without a creative impulse, imagination, vision, and an understanding of society, it’s hard to believe that any real scientific accomplishments would have arisen. 

Science requires creativity for continued innovation. No invention was envisioned without curiosity and ambition: the dreamer gazing at the stars in wonder, the biologist fighting to cure a terrible disease, the electrical engineer helping to overcome obstacles in the way of communications, and other pioneers motivated by a need to improve our quality of life. 

This sentiment is articulately echoed by astrophysicists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Adam Frank. Both men of science not only acknowledge the necessity of the humanities, they embrace liberal arts as a crucial backbone to scientific achievement. In a 2016 piece for NPR, Frank advocated for the value of the arts in academia: “In spite of being a scientist, I strongly believe an education that fails to place a heavy emphasis on the humanities is a missed opportunity. Without a base in humanities, both the students -- and the democratic society these students must enter as informed citizens -- are denied a full view of the heritage and critical habits of mind that make civilization worth the effort.” 

Frank provided a solid reason for his conclusion: “The old barriers between the humanities and technology are falling. Historians now use big-data techniques to ask their human-centered questions. Engineers use the same methods -- but with an emphasis on human interfaces -- to answer their own technology-oriented questions.”

In the future, computers will probably assume a greater share of the work duties currently tasked to human talent, including programming and data analysis. We can’t presume that automation won’t replace or commoditize certain skill sets. Realistically, however, there’s a limit to what machines will be able to do. As Tom Perrault observed for Harvard Business Review, “What can’t be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success. And yet companies aren’t hiring for them. This is a problem for today’s digital companies, and it’s only going to get worse.”

Technology and Creativity Are Bound Together

Creative talent enjoy taking risks. They see these gambles as necessary systems of trial and error that lead to true innovation. Just like the world’s most renowned scientists, creative talent operate empirically. Missteps and failures don’t deter them — they instruct them.

Not only do creative professionals take risks, they refuse to quit in the face of shortcomings, defects or even rebuke from colleagues, managers or others in their communities. They are inherently optimistic and see risks as opportunities. Henry Ford’s first vehicle, a motorized four-wheeled bike of sorts, failed. Miserably. Instead of throwing in the towel, he learned from the mistake and went on to pioneer the Model T. 

While working for the Kansas City Star, Walt Disney was told by his editor that he lacked imagination and marketable ideas. Obviously, that harsh critique did little to stifle Mr. Disney’s formidable future achievements — all symbols of imagination and clever marketing.

Of course, the interesting corollary to these examples is how both creative geniuses promoted technology, instead of working against it. Ford radically shifted methods of transit and work. He absolutely threatened the horse-and-buggy industry, yet his company created countless more jobs around the world. Ford also renovated the nature of labor with assembly line processes that delivered inexpensive goods to consumers while supporting high wages for workers. 

Walt Disney is a grandfather of realistic audio animatronics. You can’t visit a Disney attraction and not marvel at the robotic characters at the heart of the rides. Yet, the magic of a Disney theme park isn’t all technology — it’s the customer experience and interaction provided by live talent. The same rings true for Disney and Pixar films. The leaps and bounds in computer animation technology never surpass the humanity of the stories, which comes from writers, artists, and voice actors.

More recently, I read (courtesy of Gizmodo’s Lauren Leffer) about Ford filing a patent for theoretical tech that would allow its vehicles to repossess themselves. In this somewhat dystopian vision, Ford’s autonomous vehicles could ferry themselves back to a dealership, impound lot, or scrap yard if the owner became delinquent in payments. Sure, it’s kind of terrifying, but it took a twisted creative mind to devise the concept, leaving the tech folks to work out the mechanics. 

There Is No Innovation Without Invention

Back to Nathan Heller’s New Yorker article. “A funny thing about the market mentality,” he said, “is that it knows only what’s judged to have future value right now. Career studies have shown that humanities majors, with their communication and analytical skills, often end up in leadership jobs. To that extent, the value of the educated human touch is likely to hold in a storm of technological and cultural change.”

Love it or loathe it, there has been much ado about ChatGPT and its ability to replicate some artistic and compositional tasks. 

“But ChatGPT can no more conceive ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ than it can guide and people-manage an organization,” Heller noted. “Instead, A.I. can gather and order information, design experiments and processes, produce descriptive writing and mediocre craftwork, and compose basic code, and those are the careers likeliest to go into slow eclipse.”

In fact, ChatGPT uses human trainers to teach the AI. Like most AI systems, it must conduct its learning by poring over, collecting, and attempting to synthesize volumes of published works and human research.

“ChatGPT can write and debug code well enough to get a job at Amazon. It learned this skill from code-hosting platform GitHub, but soon it’s going to take lessons from actual engineers,” Chandra Steele pointed out in PC Mag. “OpenAI, which owns ChatGPT, is hiring 1,000 coders, in part to explain their methods to ChatGPT in natural language.”

Sanjay Sarma, a professor of mechanical engineering at M.I.T., told Heller on the phone, “I think the future belongs to the humanities.”

Hiring Creative Talent: How MSPs, Hiring Managers, and Staffing Suppliers Can Align

Given the current employment situation, the fierce competition to secure skilled talent makes perfect sense. Yet the creative, intrapreneurial mavericks should not be omitted in the search. Creative workers can be the best hires for companies that are truly in motion, tolerant of change, serious about stirring the pot to innovate, and creating new environments that require a degree of risk and uncertainty. The creativity, drive and exploratory nature of these individuals help businesses discover and capitalize on new opportunities, break free from outdated and ineffective models, pioneer unique solutions, and avoid stagnation. They have the potential to be prized assets for a growing or rebranding company.

Sourcing creative talent is itself a creative process. Staffing requires matching the right talent to the right business culture, often deploying unconventional recruiting and screening processes. This is the job of staffing professionals — one they consistently perform and refine. The best way clients, MSPs, and their staffing partners can achieve client goals together is to focus on fit.

  • Staffing providers and MSPs, when tasked with handling a program concentrated on change and innovation, should spend a greater amount of time during discovery and voice of the customer meetings to get a clear picture of the client’s existing culture, its ability to loosen structures and policies, and its comfort level with creative talent who may operate outside traditional team structures or approval processes.
  • MSPs, clients, and their staffing partners must spend extra time communicating about the realistic nature of the client’s culture and flexibility.
  • Staffing professionals, combining this information with their expertise in sourcing creative talent, can more easily assess the best fits between hiring managers and maverick innovators.
  • After coordinating with staffing partners on submitted candidates, hiring managers or MSPs must also be willing to champion these selections, making cases for non-traditional yet innovative talent whose pros outweigh perceived cons.

If there’s a theme for the direction of business in this century, it’s punctuated by a recurring buzzword: innovation. Companies want “breakthroughs” and “bold ideas” and “the next big thing.” But ideas — the notions, what if’s, and imaginative leaps — these qualities exist in the realm of the mind. Machines and data can produce some wonderful things. Coming up with that next big idea that will lead to new iterations of these technologies — and that's best left to the dreamers, the philosophers, the artists, and the creative thinkers behind the science.

Photo by Carolina Garcia Tavizon on Unsplash

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