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Editorial: Hope for liberal arts?

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Posted: Saturday, May 31, 2014 12:00 am

Our front-page headline on Wednesday was dispiriting for all those history and English majors graduating this year: “Few companies seek liberal arts majors.”

Employers are looking for business, engineering and computer grads, the story said.

But there was an odd twist: Four of five human resource managers cited communications skills as a top priority.

What gives?

The academic pendulum seems to be swinging toward those with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills, the students who can push the frontier of computing and designing and calculating. And it is hard to argue that today’s students don’t need a solid exposure to STEM.

But is there a balance here? Can nerds enjoy poetry? Can poets build websites?

An appealing blend might be emerging not far away.

Last week, we attended presentations by graduating seniors at the ABLE Academy, a charter high school that’s affiliated with Humphreys College in Stockton.

These presentations were, in a word, superb.

One by one, the seniors stepped before a large group in a lecture hall. On a giant screen, each presented their own website, integrating text, graphics and video. Some cited Einstein. One cited the NBA star Kevin Durant. All the presentations were fast-paced, concise and thoroughly engaging.

The digital work was impressive, but not as impressive as the verbal presentations. Dressed professionally, in dresses, suits or sportcoats and ties, the students introduced themselves and their projects with a sense of poise and maturity.

The projects reflected many hours of working in teams on an integrated curriculum of computer, digital and communications skills. There is plenty of Google in their studies at ABLE, but plenty of creative writing, too.

Count us among those who think Dickens and digital studies are both important.

Yet as we reviewed the story about liberal arts majors and their skimpy job prospects, we were distracted by another front-page headline: “CEO pay soars to new heights.”

Well, if money is one measure of success, we wondered what the college majors of these corporate titans might be.

The STEM crowd was, in fact, strongly represented.

Anthony Petrello, CEO of Nabors Industries, made $68.2 million last year, making him the top corporate earner in the nation. He majored in math at Harvard.

Stephen Kaufer, chief of TripAdvisor, majored in computer science at Harvard and pulled in $39 million.

Richard Adkerson was an engineering major at Mississippi State. He made $55.3 million as CEO of a mining and metals company.

But a couple of liberal arts types were among the financial elite, too.

Robert Iger, CEO of Walt Disney, who made $34.3 million in 2013, majored in TV and radio at Ithaca College.

Philippe Dauman, head of Viacom, majored in political science at Yale and was paid $37.2 million last year.

And Les Moonves, head of CBS, earned $65.6 million last year. Not all that shabby for a Spanish major from Bucknell.

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