Saving Humanity: Defending the Humanities in an Automated World

In order to save the humanities, educators need to understand and teach the applicability of humanities in an increasingly automated and technologized world.

Saving Humanity: Defending the Humanities in an Automated World

As a growing number of both blue and white collar professions are replaced by algorithms, robots and other forms of automation, human workers will find it increasingly difficult to find and keep jobs that are both well paying and well respected. In their recently published book What To Do When Machines Do Everything, Cognizant execs Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring estimate that 15 percent of jobs may be automated out of existence in the next 10 to 15 years.[1] In the face of such predictions, students and institutions of higher education must ask themselves: what majors should college students choose in a world where the workforce is being reshaped by automation?


The most popular answer is STEM education, which a US News op-ed from 2012 called “the key to the US’s Economic Future.”[2] Since then, science and engineering majors—including those in medicine and computing—have remained the fastest growing and some of the highest paying after graduation. The luster of STEM careers has even spawned a new market for coding camps and IT certificate programs that are now producing tens of thousands of graduates a year.[3]


The study of STEM subjects is vital to the growth of the world economy. STEM graduates are indeed the ones responsible for driving the digitization and automation that’s making our businesses more productive and our lives more convenient. In many cases, however, it has been concerned parents and lawmakers—not educators—who have driven the fixation on STEM degrees.


In the last few years, dozens of states have proposed or passed legislation aimed at incentivizing or increasing funding for STEM education—to the detriment of humanities subjects. In 2016, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin declared that, “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.”[4] During the last presidential campaign, Senator Marco Rubio quipped, “We need more welders and less philosophers.”[5] More recently, Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate Victor Mitchell advocated for shifting all—that’s right, all—of the state’s higher education funding to STEM subjects.[6] And it’s not just Republicans who have put pressure on colleges and universities to double down on more practical majors. In 2014, the Obama administration proposed rating schools on, among other things, how much money their alums make after graduation.[7]


The liberal arts and the humanities help cultivate a fascination with and an appreciation for people, their choices, their context, their beliefs and motivations. Yet, most liberal arts colleges and humanities departments have done a poor job of asserting their value and managing the public’s perception. Educators need to understand and teach the applicability of humanities to the 21st century instead of their enduring importance to a fulfilling life. In our world, a fulfilling life starts with a lucrative career, and higher ed leaders need to play off these concerns if they want to save the liberal arts.


The good news is it’s not hard to make this argument. Several studies in fact suggest that STEM skills are not the most resilient to automation after all. The most comprehensive is perhaps Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborn’s 2013 study, which uses a mathematical model to rank the probability of automation of 702 different occupations. Of course, much has changed since 2013 and some of the professions that registered a low probability of being automated, like health care professionals and HR managers, have become increasingly vulnerable. Most importantly, the study found that “generalist occupations requiring knowledge of human heuristics, and specialist occupations involving the development of novel ideas and artifacts, are the least susceptible to computerisation.”[8]


This conclusion is largely supported by a 2016 McKinsey study examining which skills are most susceptible to automation, with the premise that automation is more likely to remediate specific functions rather than entire professions in the near term. Like Frey and Osborn, the McKinsey authors found that “the hardest activities to automate with the technologies available today are those that involve managing and developing people.”[9] Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, goes even further in asserting that, “The high-skill, high-pay jobs of the future may involve skills better measured by EQs than IQs, by jobs creating social as much as financial value.”[10]


If this is true, we must stop training humans to be more machine-like and instead train humans to be more human, teaching them to understand human behavior, generate new ideas, lead people, cultivate social aptitude and develop themselves and those around them on an intellectual and emotional level. To accomplish this while simultaneously elevating the importance of anthropocentric subjects, schools need to find ways to integrate and encourage collaboration between the humanities and more “practical” fields of study.


Some leading institutions are beginning to re-embrace the role of the humanities in their educational offering. Oklahoma State’s Spears School of Business, for instance, offers a variety of courses and programs designed to enhance students’ interpersonal skills on top of its business curriculum. Students at tech-oriented schools are also recognizing the importance of the human element. At MIT, for example, students have started a popular mindfulness and meditation club. Similarly, Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering recognizes the importance of the liberal arts to a science education, writing on its website that “engineering in the context of a liberal arts education provides the best preparation for solving the world’s problems.”[12]


Even Apple has started to proclaim the need for the liberal arts and humanities in technology. The invitation for Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference this year went so far as to note that, “Technology alone is not enough. Technology must intersect with the liberal arts and the humanities, to create new ideas and experiences that push society forward.”[11]


As Apple’s statement implies, science and technology deal with mathematical values, not human ones. It is human values, however, that underpin people’s motivations and behaviors. Human values lead people to challenge the status quo and dream of a better world. Human values drive the evolution of economies and societies. Human values break through and break down ignorance and bias—and it’s critical that they do so as recent research has shown that even artificial intelligence can inherit our biases.[13]


In a future of automation and artificial intelligence, how will we make sure algorithms don’t inherit our bad behaviors? How will we make sure human beings can continue to add value to the global economy? How will we make sure people can find meaning and purpose at work and in society?


Science and technology are obviously critical to the future, but if our institutions of higher education don’t also reprioritize the liberal arts and work to convince the public of their importance, humanity may turn out to be more robotic than its machines.


About the Author

Remington Tonar is a Partner at Brandsinger. He previously ran the technology and startup practices at Siegelvision, a NYC-based brand strategy firm. His background includes roles in technology marketing and product development, IT consulting and tech M&A. He holds graduate degrees in Organizational Communication and Theology from NYU and Loyola University Chicago respectively.

[1] Frank, et al. What To Do When Machines Do Everything. 34.