Liberal Arts in the Start-Up World

Berlin skyline at night (credit: Talent International).

Liberal arts students and graduates might be comforted by the claims in recent years that their degrees might not be as “useless” as they thought (or were told) they would be. The discourse around the demand for liberal arts graduates in the workforce especially revolves around hi-tech companies. It is skills such as “critical thinking, an ability to deal with ambiguity, to reach conclusions based on considered mastery of research and context” that make liberal arts graduates vital for growing hi-tech companies, says a Washington Post article called Why the Tech World Highly Values a Liberal Arts Degree. A Forbes article says a liberal arts degree has become “Tech’s hottest ticket” and describes similar, “human skills” to be required by high-tech companies and provided by liberal arts/ humanities graduates.  So we might have a “hot ticket” once we graduate, but is it really the hottest? Some of Bard College Berlin’s (ECLA) graduates and a current BCB student working in the start-up world shared their thoughts on their liberal arts education with me.

My work focuses on research and content creation for the product comparisons available on the website, says Diana Plutis, who earned her degree in philosophy in Romania and graduated from the Academy Year program at Bard College Berlin in 2013. She is now a content manager at Versus, a product comparison platform available in 18 languages.  

How did you get to work at Versus as a liberal arts student?

I started as an intern. It was important to learn along the way. I guess the most important part of working with ‘content’ is to be detail oriented and to have good research skills. It is usually the case that people working in content departments have a background in the humanities. My team is composed of people who studied journalism, political science, even film.

With regard to the Forbes article, do you feel like hi-tech companies are actually actively looking for liberal arts graduates?

I don’t think hi-tech companies are actively looking for liberal arts graduates in particular.  Companies are interested in knowing why you want to work for them and how you can contribute to their development, so it really depends on your ability to convince them that you are a good fit for the company and for the particular position you are applying for. The most important thing is the willingness to learn. Liberal arts graduates are used to switching fields more often and this is an advantage when getting involved in a start-up.

Would it be an advantage if you had studied computer science or marketing?

Yes, it would be. But it also depends on your preference and the fields in which you want to work The interesting thing about start-ups is that you can get involved in different areas. The organizational structure is less rigid than that of big companies.

Ronni Shalev, a student at the Humanities, Arts and Social Thought program at BCB and an account manager at Datorama:

When you look at small start-ups and small hi-tech companies you see that obviously, the main portion of the workers is people that have studied computer science or programming and sometimes math. But you also see subdivisions inside the companies, which do make use of more humanistic skills even in cases in which the job is technical. So for instance, my team is made up of a classically trained opera singer who goes to rehearsals after work, a student who is currently studying social work, and I am studying liberal arts. Then again we’ve also got a graduate with a business degree and a graduate with a degree in computer science and Far-East Asian studies. I think that employers are realizing that in order to have a really good team you need to have people who have had a general education, who are curious, and who will be good at communication.

Are there any ways in which your education has (directly or indirectly) come into practice in your job?

Roni: It’s very helpful for me to be able to communicate clearly and to think on a larger scale. I think that while being in any educational institution, one of the things that you realize as an individual is that you can have a direct impact on something larger. So as an employee in a growing company I feel that I can utilize the impact I have through communication and through different problem solving skills.

Diana: I tried publishing and worked in a publishing house and that was an area in which I strongly felt that my studies were put into practice. It was a publishing house that specialized in legal and financial publications, so not very close to my field, but some courses that I took, such as philosophy of law, connected well.

While there could be many advantages by which a liberal arts education can inform one’s career, it is hardly the case that one would pursue this particular kind of education only for its value and demand in the workforce. The marketization of education in general and the liberal arts in particular make us forget and disregard the value and original purpose of the liberal arts, originating in ancient Greece. 

I wouldn’t want to see anyone in their early twenties or even younger saying “I need to study something because I need to get a job”. That’s not a positive attitude to have, especially at that age. But at the same time I don’t want them to think that with a liberal arts degree it’s going to be easier down the road. It’s not. People will question your education, says April Matias, an ECLA graduate (2014). During her studies April started working at AppLift a start-up that deals with mobile advertising and app technology, where she is now a software tester. Prior to coming to ECLA she was studying computer science (but has not finished her CS degree). She adds:

I always found it problematic that in order to “sell” the humanities we end up instrumentalizing them. It’s true, you might get “critical thinking” skills, you’re a lot better at addressing a problem and get reading skills, you are taught to “think outside the box”. But at the same time it’s meaningless if a 20-something year old who is about to graduate is only asking “How am I going to find a job with a liberal arts degree?

Diana agrees: Yes, sometimes people look down on your degree. But I guess you just have to be convincing and explain in job interviews why you still think you would suit the job. Sometimes they look at you with condescendence, sometimes with interest but most of the time, (also according to what I hear from my liberal arts graduate friends) the most important thing is that you have a degree and that you were able to go through 4 years of college successfully and in that way, some people don’t care about what’s actually written on your diploma.  

It seems as if I had to justify my education from the day that I decided to attend a liberal arts college. In their attempt to help me out in the process of articulating this justification, my interlocutors would very often mention two main reasons to study liberal arts. One of them  indeed revolved around the discourse on the instrumentalization of the liberal arts in so far that it stated that they now have a potential to be useful and economically advantageous. The other one usually discussed some ethical side that my education is supposed to evolve. But I did not decide to pursue this education because I believe that it would be better at providing me with tools to enter the workforce than any other field of study, nor did I pursue it in order to become a moral citizen of the world as I doubt that liberal arts graduates are more ethically inclined in their actions than graduates of any other fields.

However, there are certain ways in which the liberal arts have the potential to inform ethical citizenship according to April:

There is the idea of “Bildung” that talks about edifying, but with the growth of mass universities there is an agenda that is being practiced… Maybe originally education was about making students become better citizens, but now it’s about preparing them for the labor market which is tied to political decisions. A part of what you get from the liberal arts is that you are a lot more conscious of your actions. I am aware that I’m a part of the labor market and I can be tagged and evaluated in certain ways, and the fact that I’m aware that I’m participating in this makes me more conscious of the ethical and political consequences of my actions.

Diana also mentions ways in which the ethical approach comes into being:

Philosophy, or better said philosophical inquiry, is relevant for numerous domains. In technology for example, there are many concerns about privacy and security in the online sphere, digital rights and and many more issues which raise important philosophical questions. For this reason many institutions have ethics commissions or people with an education in the humanities who are involved in policy making.

Ronni: This whole idea of education being a financial investment is something that is pretty skewed in my eyes. You’re not buying some product. People forget that the study of humanities is something that has been going on for thousands of years. People study books because books are something that you study and they inspire you and pass on knowledge from one generation to the other.

How do we ensure in this case, that the liberal arts are not something that can only be accessed by the more privileged?

Liberal arts has always been a privilege. It’s for people who can afford to pursue things that interest them and it’s a shame. Of course I think that every liberal arts educator or a person that had benefited from a liberal arts education would have liked it to become more accessible, but it’s something that was saved for liberal, i.e. free men. I don’t know how that translated into the workforce. Pursuing education for the sake of education is not something everyone can do, so I’m fortunate in that sense.

There is a need to restructure the approach to the humanities and the liberal arts in general. The marketization of the liberal arts does seems destructive to them. However, I wonder whether there is a way in which the institutions could not only survive, but also appeal to students that find their interests within the liberal arts (which nowadays are heavily based on the humanities) and at the same time fear for their future. Certain questions remain regarding the social responsibility of the liberal arts student – do we have any responsibility at all that is distinct to us because of our education, and if we do, how does it come into being? April has a positive uptake on that:

The ideas and the anxieties that people feel – we are the ones that are going to put them into words and find the conceptual framework that can resolve these. Maybe not in a concrete public-policy kind of way, but by ‘living’ ideas such as tolerance and multiculturalism. These are things that were conceptualized in the context of the humanities and they were not a part of the common vocabulary before. And there are visible and tangible changes that happened because of their conceptualization.


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