English, a More Practical Major than STEM

Isaac Israels, “Reading Girl on a Sofa” (1920)


I always like to pass along good news to my English majors so here’s an article assuring them that they’ve made a good practical choice in choosing their area of study. According to Cathy N. Davidson,  author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, internal studies conducted by Google of its 72,000 employees have discovered that the STEM disciplines are overrated.

When Google began operations, Davidson said, it originally targeted computer science students from elite universities. Its “Projected Oxygen” results, therefore, were unexpected:

[W]hen ‘Project Oxygen’ was carried out in 2013, the results gathered came as a shock to the industry. ‘Project Oxygen’ concluded that among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in last. The top characteristics of success at Google are so-called “soft skills,” such as communication, good leadership, possessing insight into others’ values and points of view, having empathy and a supportive nature towards others and possessing good critical thinking and problem solving skills, along with the ability to create connections across complex ideas.

Of course, reading and writing about literature develop these soft skills. Davidson notes that, even when STEM-trained employees have done well, is has been “despite their technical training and not because of it.”

A follow-up Google study reinforced the findings:

On top of that, Google also carried out ‘Project Aristotle’ last spring, which analyzed data on its inventive and productive teams, and supports the importance of soft skills, even in high tech environments. This study showed that the most innovative and productive ideas were actually coming from Google’s B-teams instead of their highly professional counterparts and esteemed scientists who would be categorized as A-teams, which further consolidates the fact that the best teams at Google exhibit soft skills such as generosity, curiosity, empathy and emotional intelligence with a keen emphasis on emotional safety, also. 

Davidson concludes with an observation that I share with my students all the time—and which I can now say with increased confidence:

The humanities and the arts and the pleasure in studying them make us not only work ready, but world ready too, and the world is in desperate need of the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.

Literature, which seems to take us out of the world, helps us operate more effectively within it.

But then, you already knew that.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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