Google In-House Philosopher Points the Way


What is classical education?

Andrew Kern famously defined classical education as “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty.” He adds, “It must be distinguished from training for a career, which is of eternal value but is not the same thing as education.”

It is very hard for us to distinguish real education from career training because our pragmatic minds find it very difficult to see the value of learning that doesn’t land a better job or a bigger salary. And furthermore, we find it hard to see the value of studying the humanities, when the future seems to lie in science, technology, engineering, and math. Yet it is classical education that truly prepares us to be wise and virtuous human beings, able to learn and ready to succeed in the contemporary world.

Let me share with you the story of former computer programmer and current Google in-house philosopher Damon Horowitz, who quit his career in technology in order to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy (“From Technologist to Philosopher: Why you should quit your technology job and get a Ph.D. in the humanities”). It’s yet another case of contemporary needs leading us back to classical education. The entire story appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 2011) – and I encourage you to go read the whole article – but here is the last part of the article, which I hope teases your mind enough to lead you to go read the whole thing.

I see a humanities degree [not the same thing as classical education, but the humanities, if they are taught rightly, overlap with the content of classical education — DB] as nothing less than a rite of passage to intellectual adulthood. A way of evolving from a sophomoric wonderer and critic into a rounded, open, and engaged intellectual citizen. When you are no longer engaged only in optimizing your products—and you let go of the technotopian view—your world becomes larger, richer, more mysterious, more inviting. More human.

Even if you are moved by my unguarded rhapsodizing here, no doubt you are also thinking, “How am I going to pay for this?!” You imagine, for a moment, the prospect of spending half a decade in the library, and you can’t help but calculate the cost (and “opportunity cost”) of this adventure.

But do you really value your mortgage more than the life of the mind? What is the point of a comfortable living if you don’t know what the humanities have taught us about living well? If you already have a job in the technology industry, you are already significantly more wealthy than the vast majority of our planet’s population. You already have enough.

If you are worried about your career, I must tell you that getting a humanities Ph.D. is not only not a danger to your employability, it is quite the opposite. I believe there no surer path to leaping dramatically forward in your career than to earn a Ph.D. in the humanities. Because the thought leaders in our industry are not the ones who plodded dully, step by step, up the career ladder. The leaders are the ones who took chances and developed unique perspectives.

Getting a humanities Ph.D. is the most deterministic path you can find to becoming exceptional in the industry. It is no longer just engineers who dominate our technology leadership, because it is no longer the case that computers are so mysterious that only engineers can understand what they are capable of. There is an industrywide shift toward more “product thinking” in leadership—leaders who understand the social and cultural contexts in which our technologies are deployed.

Products must appeal to human beings, and a rigorously cultivated humanistic sensibility is a valued asset for this challenge. That is perhaps why a technology leader of the highest status—Steve Jobs—recently credited an appreciation for the liberal arts as key to his company’s tremendous success with their various i-gadgets.

It is a convenient truth: You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion; and it just so happens, as a by-product, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry. Such is the halo of human flourishing.

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