Blending Two Cultures in Our Classrooms

by Scott Hartley

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A well-rounded education is one that is both meant to be consumed and one that prepares. It invokes curiosity and helps refine passion. It is one part product, one part service, and another part investment and insurance for the future. We'd be presumptuous to argue that education is not to some degree all of these things together, and perhaps more.

How we balance these features in designing education is a perennial challenge. It is important to expose students to a wide range of disciplines to help them refine their own interests. And it is important to have a point of view on how to also provide students with well-rounded exposure to the tools that will prepare them to be flexible members of society.

Charles Percy Snow delivered his famous "Two Cultures" lecture at Cambridge University, during which he lamented a growing divide between the sciences and the humanities. Today that chasm exists between technologists and humanists: those who build new tools and those who examine human nature. The drumbeat of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has been strong, and there are indeed arguments for short-term skills gaps, demographics for which these skills have too long been underinvested and underemphasized.

Gaining technological literacy is important. We need technological interlocutors, those who can transcribe human preferences, sensitivities, and values into ones and zeros. As such, we ought to consider how to provide all students with confidence when it comes to tech.

But, as we see with Wired magazine's recent cover story and the illustration of a battered and bruised Mark Zuckerberg, the gravest challenges in technology were never in coding a blue-and-white website. The greatest challenges are in managing the psychological, philosophical, and anthropological impacts these new tools have on individuals and society.

Technology is not neutral; humans design, interrogate, and refine technology, and therefore it becomes reflective of its creators. If we wish to alter technology and the impact it has on society, we must focus on those who create it.

At the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma spoke of the importance of teaching human values. Values are, after all, what make us truly unique from machines that are highly adept at routine manual and cognitive tasks. While we overestimate the threats of technology in the short run, we likely discount the necessity of human values and soft skills in the long run. These are what make us uniquely human.

So, the question becomes, how can we prepare students for a changing world, one in which they certainly need technical literacy, but also one in which they need strong values? In my book, I argue that we need to blend Snow's "Two Cultures," or as they are lightheartedly known at Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, "fuzzies" and "techies."

We need to bring the dusty books out of the stacks, allowing students to engage with classical philosophical texts, and do so in the context of current technological debates. One can assign John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, but allow consequentialist and deontological conversations to center around autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence. And one can assign computer science problems and data sorts, but do so with inherently biased data sets, forcing students to grapple with ethical questions of what their answers mean for society.

As reported in Natasha Singer's recent New York Times article, at the University of Texas at Austin, there is now a course called "Ethical Foundations of Computer Science," and at New York University there are courses on data science ethics. At Stanford, "Ethics, Public Policy and Computer Science," has been added to the curriculum this year, nudging engineering students to grapple with some of the thorniest societal questions around privacy, civil rights, and automation. Silicon Valley engineer Tracy Chou, recently on the cover of MIT Technology Review, burst into headlines when she lamented not taking more humanities and social sciences as an undergraduate. As an early employee at both Quora and Pinterest, she learned that the thorniest questions centered on privacy, censorship, and user behavior. She was a pure techie who had overlooked the value of her broad liberal arts education until it was too late, and she had successfully managed to avoid much breadth.

Rather than just learning new technical skills, we need to prioritize blending today's divergent cultures of technology and human values, exposing students to the new tools without losing sight of those applications and contexts that give them meaning. The answer is not in cutting music for STEM, turning everything into a "digital humanities" course, or simply putting courses online. The hard questions are: How can we teach the most cutting-edge technology and subject it to the timeless rigors of philosophical inquiry? How can we teach the classical paradigms of social science and show their necessity for today's tools? How can we help students find and study their passions and do it in a way that also prepares them to do what they love in an incredibly dynamic job market steeped in technological change?

Answering these questions of integration, of applied disciplines, is more important than learning to code. We ought to applaud those efforts, and now build upon them to answer the questions that will persist even when the latest coding language becomes obsolete.
Scott Hartley is a venture capitalist and startup advisor. He is the author of "The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).