The Power of the Sloppy Mind

For all the importance of learning science, technology, engineering and math, there's nothing like a good, squishy liberal arts education to get you thinking about things you otherwise wouldn't

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Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for TIME

President of the University of Pennsylvania Amy Gutmann and Founder of The Broad Foundations Eli Broad speak at the TIME Summit On Higher Education Day 2 at Time Warner Center on Sept. 20, 2013 in New York City.

If you’re looking for someone to solve a problem, pick the most disorderly thinker in the room. The slightly sloppy mind is also the very elastic mind—the one that rounds corners, hedges conclusions and can adapt to a changing set of premises. And for all the importance of learning science, technology, engineering and math, there’s nothing like a good, squishy liberal arts education to get you thinking about things you otherwise wouldn’t.

At TIME’s Education Summit on Friday, a panel of academics addressed that idea with a straightforward question: “What is an educated person?” We think we know. Putting in the years, piling up the credits, accumulating the degrees certainly get you most of the way there. But does everyone have the ability to make the most of that?

Cathy Davidson, professor of interdisciplinary studies—and much more—at Duke University, thinks of the period from 1875 to 1925 as the world’s first great information age. “Books became widely available,” she says. “Educators developed a range of tools and ideas that remade the university—the concept of IQ, the beginning of the SAT, the creation of majors and minors in university curricula.”

Educators in the current information age, she worries, haven’t yet figured out how to optimize what they have in quite the same way. The result is that for all the attention that goes to maximizing our ability to work in the digital age—which means promoting the science, technology, engineering and math fields hard—we have left some things out. Human resources departments in large information age companies like, Davidson says, thin out their massive herd of job applicants by running their resumes through an algorithm that eliminates candidates with liberal arts or community college degrees. Great, so they’ve guaranteed that they get the most technologically savvy workers. “Then, however, they complain that the employees they have can’t master critical thinking,” Davidson says.

During earlier sessions of the Summit on Friday, participants floated a possible solution to that problem—and the anti-liberal arts bias that gives rise to it. Numerous speakers made the point that a culture with a short attention span must acquire the ability to think long-term when it comes to basic investment in R&D and experimentation. If you expect an immediate payoff, you’re always going to be disappointed. The same is true for certain kinds of education.

“A liberal arts degree traces an arc that few people will be able to anticipate when they embark on it,” says Pauline Yu, the president of the American Council of Learned Societies. “We have to instill patience in the public mind.”

That pays big dividends. It’s fine to be digitally literate, to have access to massive—indeed unlimited—amounts of information. But you still have to know how to apply it.

“For that,” says Yu, “you need historical literacy, global literacy. You need to know a second language. You need to be able to get inside the head and the skin of another person—the kind of thing that comes from studying literature. Most important, you need to understand ethics—what it means to be a citizen of the nation and the planet.”

This makes you not only a more aware person, it also makes you a flexible person. Marcia McNutt, the editor of Science magazine and the former head of the U.S. Geological Survey mentioned that one thing that struck her in her time in government work was the number of people who had held their jobs for a long, long time. “At the USGS, we had more people with 50-year pins than in any other part of the federal government,” she said.

So that’s bad, right? A result of bureaucratic tenure that could only lead to ossified thinking? Maybe not.  “They had at least five careers in the time they were there,” says McNutt. “The things that they came in working on were nothing like the things they’d have to do later, so they had to reinvent themselves again and again.”

Maybe the USGS employees were a rare and uniquely flexible group. Certainly, that kind of nimbleness is not what’s typically associated with people studying the Earth sciences—a field in which things literally move in geological time. No matter how they came by such flexibility though, there are ways for institutes of learning to help everyone acquire it. Encourage students to study overseas, to learn a second language, to get outside their comfort zones. If you’re majoring in physics, minor in literature. If you major in literature, study the sciences too—and in an economy that does tilt toward workers with particular talents, think about sticking around a while and picking up a Masters degree in teaching or a technical skill.

The mind that’s too oblique, too non-literal, can be poorly disciplined. The mind that’s all discipline is too brittle. Science and math can brace the liberal brain—and liberal arts can anneal the technical one.