The Secret Society of Liberal Artists


The IT industry is dominated by those with CS degrees.  Much criticism has been leveled at the CS degree of late, mostly on the grounds that it doesn’t provide the skills (or even teach the languages) that an aspiring software developer will need once she gets out into the real world.  Brian at Enfranchised Mind has a good post over on his blog about this.  He raises what he considers to be three misconceptions concerning IT and the CS degree:

  • Computer science and programming are separate things, and that it’s possible to know one without knowing the other,
  • That it is possible, at least in theory, to teach students everything (or most everything) they need to know in “the real world”, in a reasonable amount of time (four years), and
  • That the point and purpose of a CS education is to give you those “real world” skills.

He argues, correctly I believe, that the goal of the Computer Science Degree is not to provide students with a specific set of skills to do a specific job, but rather the sort of skills they will need to perform any IT job.  This has both practical and humanistic implications.  From a practical point of view, being trained to do a specific job in IT is inherently short sighted, since technology changes so quickly that the person trained to do the most needed tasks today — say MS BizTalk, or MS SharePoint, or SOA architecture — may find himself obsolete within five years. 

Job training is also wrong from the humanistic perspective, however.  To be trained for a job is basically to be trained to be a cog in a wheel.  This doesn’t work in professions that require the amount of energy, thought, and imagination required to successfully complete software projects.  Instead, some thought has to be put into developing the whole person to participate in the complex activity of software development, and this means equipping that person with the skills needed to not only understand the things that have to be done immediately, but also to understand the principles behind what they do, and the goals they are trying to achieve.  This in turn involves developing the whole individual in a way which, on the surface, appears to be useless.  CS majors learn obsolete languages and the principles behind building tools that have already been developed for them out in the real world.  Why learn to build a web server when there are so many already out there?

What is forgotten in these arguments against CS is that the goal of the degree is not to teach CS majors how to do any particular IT task, but rather how to think about IT.  In learning obsolete languages, they learn to think about software in a pure way that does not involve immediate applications or utilitarian motives.  They learn to appreciate computer science for its own sake.  In the long run, this useless knowledge can also become useful knowledge.  When code start breaking, when servers don’t work as advertised, it is the CS major who is able to step in and unravel the problems because they understand what the server or the code is supposed to do.  They understand the principles.  For a great article on the purpose of useless knowledge, I highly recommend Stanley Fish’s post from earlier this year.

While the IT industry is dominated by CS majors, it is not exclusive to CS majors.  Over the years accountants, actuaries, mathematicians, physicists, entomologists and ornithologists have also found their way into the profession, and have enriched it with their particular perspectives.  The rigor of their training has turned out to provide much needed additional skills to the mix.  The mathematician knows his way around algorithms much better than the typical CS major.  The ornithologist is trained to organize and particularize in ways those with CS degrees are not.  Accountants and actuaries know the secret paths of financial transactions that your common CS major cannot usually follow.  These specialists have basically learned on the job, and their prior careers have provided them with the techniques of methodical thinking as well as the strong grounding in mathematics necessary to make this transition possible.

But the IT industry is not exclusive to CS majors and emigres from finance and the sciences.  Within the hallowed cubicles of IT you will also find secret adepts of the Trivium, followers of disciplines which since the beginning of the 20th century have been generally acknowledged as being trivial.  These are the practitioners of truly useless knowledge: English majors, philosophy majors, psychology majors, comparative literature and art history majors.  You may work in an IT shop infiltrated by these people.  You may even have a French literature major working in the cubicle across from yours and not even know it.  Your DBA could be a history major.  The etiquette of the IT workplace prevents you from finding this sort of thing out.  You have no way of knowing.

But they know.  Liberal artists seek each other out, and have secret phrases they use to find each other that seem like gobbledygook to the rest of us.  Has a colleague ever asked, in passing, if you read Auden?  You probably gave a confused look, and the interlocutor quickly changed the subject.  You’ve probably even forgotten about the incident, not understanding the implications of the phrase. 

What was really going on, though, was this: you were being approached by a Liberal Artist who, for whatever reason, suspected that you might also be a Liberal Artist.  Perhaps you dressed with a bit of extra flair that day, or took some care in matching your belt with your shoes, or applied a subtle and inoffensive amount of cologne.  There are lots of secret signs in the Liberal Artist community.  Whatever it was, you were then approached in a "contact" scenario to discover if you were in fact an initiate or merely someone who accidentally deviated from the norm of the IT dress code (i.e. golf shirt, khaki pants with frayed cuffs, tech gear worn on utility belt).  Your bewildered look, in turn, indicated one of two things: 1) I have no idea what you are talking about or 2) there are other people listening in — too dangerous to make contact now — come back later.

Other phrases that might be used by a liberal artist during a "contact" situation include:

    • I read an article in Archaeology Today that might be relevant to this.
    • I hear the Pinot Gris is especially tasty this year.
    • That is quite a moral quandary.  I wonder what Kant would say.
    • This debate over objects vs services reminds me of the Medieval debate between Realists and Nominalists.
    • Did you see that New Yorker cartoon?  You know the one I’m talking about.
    • That is not the proper usage for "begs the question."  What you meant to say is it "invites the question."
    • Are you as incensed as I am by Stanley Fish’s latest blog post?


This of course does not exhaust the list of occult phrases that may be used by the liberal artist during an attempted contact, but it should give you a good indication of the types of things you might look for in order to find signs of liberal artist infiltration of your organization.  Another way to identify liberal artists without breaking etiquette and outright asking them — thus revealing that you are onto their little game, and possibly placing yourself in a precarious position — is to ask what schools they attended.   Even better, surreptitiously check their resumes to gather this information.  Sometimes the matter may be ambiguous.  On the other hand, if you find that they attended schools with names like Bard, Brown or Bowdoin, then you can be fairly certain that you are face-to-face with a liberal artist.  Here is a list of other liberal arts schools you can use in your background check.

Why, you may ask, are liberal artists so secretive about their background, to the point that they require secret signals to identify one another?  An innocent explanation would be that they simply suffer from a bit of CS envy, and desire to blend in.  But this wouldn’t be the whole story.  Liberal artists help each other out.  By identifying each other in these esoteric ways, they not only form a cohesive unit within an organization, but put themselves in positions to help one another out.  Like a fifth column inside the corporate body, they concentrate power into the hands of like-minded individuals, and use this as leverage in order further climb the corporate ladder.

Consider how many of your managers might be liberal artists.  Liberal artists are often able to emphasize their communication skills based on their backgrounds, which tends to put them on a management track.  Once in management, they are in turn more likely to favor others with a similar background for promotions.  It is a vicious circle that leads, in many companies, to a situation in which you may find that while the IT staff is predominantly made up of CS majors, the class of employees tasked with managing the CS majors are almost exclusively humanities majors.  And how does this happen?  Through simple and apparently innocuous questions like "Do you read Auden?"

Don’t believe me?  Then consider that Carly Fiorini, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard responsible for the merger with Compaq, is a medieval history and philosophy major.  Michael Eisner, one of the best paid CEO’s ever, studied English and theater.  Sue Kronick, one of the 25 highest paid executives in the U.S. according to Fortune Magazine, did Asian studies in college.  So the next time you are tempted to think of the Secret Society of Liberal Artists as a mere social organization, consider carefully who holds the reins of power in your company.  The Secret Society of Liberal Artists: a harmless networking tool?  Perhaps.  A dangerous anti-democratic cult out to gather power by any means?  Most definitely.

How do I know all this?  Because, my friends, I must confess that I am not only a software programmer.  I am also a recovering liberal artist.  And I am here to warn you: do not take the liberal arts lightly.

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