“When hundreds of recruiters descend on my campus twice each year, I make a point of understanding their needs. I ask any I encounter the same thing: “What are you looking for from our graduates?” Without fail, I get a version of the same answer. Yes, they want technical skills. But they also want something broader. They want to hire engineers who can communicate and think critically, who can adapt and create, who can assess the quality of conflicting information, and who can view a problem from multiple perspectives. These are the core skills cultivated by the liberal arts, and I’ve never met an employer who didn’t think they were more important than most other people think.
Indeed, recently I put my question to a senior executive of one of the country’s biggest oil companies. “I’m looking for diversity of thought,” he said, without hesitating. “When I put a team of engineers on a project, I don’t want a bunch of people who all think the same. I need people who can see things differently, who can bring unique perspectives to the table, who can empathize with others, and think outside the box. To be innovative, we need that.”
I didn’t have to tell him that the arts and humanities are key to developing these perspectives. It’s what a liberal-arts education does best. But science, art, engineering, and music also have much in common: They’re all creative enterprises. Building proficiency in one area strengthens the others. Many top engineering colleges recognize this, and for years leading authorities have been calling for integrating the arts into the STEM curriculum. It’s the move from STEM to “STEAM,” and it’s not so big a leap as it appears.