A Liberal Arts Education and Asperger’s Syndrome

In a conversation focused on the value of a liberal arts education in today’s economic and social climate, a classmate took the following position:

The problem lies in the social aspect of non-traditional schools and an example of this would be the Colorado School of Mines. Mines is a very tough engineering school that focuses on engineering and computer science. It technically is a traditional school that is specialized on engineering (they don’t have art appreciation). Once you have a chance to walk on campus you will realize that most these students are not socialized. They walk around with their heads in a book and spend their days in a lab, library, or in front of their computer screen. They do have a few sports teams, but maybe 10% of the class population attends the competitions. There are very little parties and even less campus events.

These students are extremely smart, but have a very difficult time interacting with one another and working as a team. This may be due to Aspergers disorder (which it is found that a lot of them have) or the lack of community events that happens at the school.

A second classmate chimed in:

I can relate to your description of the School of Mines. When I worked in marketing at a computer company, we had many engineers, computer scientists and programmers on staff. It was obvious that they were incredibly smart and had a strong technological education, but they could not interact in a social way with each other or anyone else. When they were required to work as part of the team but just came and zoned out at meetings. To discuss projects with them was frustrating and difficult and rarely resulted in getting what we needed.

At my current organization we have two technology guys who are laid back, funny and articulate. We joke that they must have had a liberal arts education first as they don’t fit the stereotype of the computer nerd. They are incredible at problem solving with very non technical staff and never talk down to us. Their social skills are way above other computer technicians of my experience. I think I will ask them about their education. Now I am just curious!

There was much to disagree with in each of these positions. In this post, I’ll focus on a few of the major issues.

I have a measure of familiarity with students and graduates from Mines, MIT, and a few other technical universities. They are truly remarkable people and have a few odd behaviors or eclectic interests. And it’s been observed: “The reason that every major university maintains a department of mathematics is that it’s cheaper than institutionalizing all those people.” The same could be said of the little niche of chemistry students I belonged to as a student at CU Boulder. But that’s just how it looks from the outside. My challenge to these classmates was surely you cannot be suggesting schools like Mines are somehow handicapping their students by emphasizing math and science over art and literature?

As a model for all schools, Mines would be a bad thing. But they do serve a specialized market. And, I would add, an important one. The beauty of a free market system (for ideas and commerce) is that each of us can choose the school most closely tailored to our skills and interests.

I also challenged the claims that

  • A lot of students at Mines are afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome.
  • Students with the type of character traits prevalent on the campus of Mines have trouble working as a team.

Neither of these challenges were answered.

I was not aware of any research that concluded “a lot” of students at Mines (or any predominantly technical university) have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, nor could I find any.

I’ve worked with many of these types of individuals and, when I managed technical teams, was responsible for hiring them. The key is to understand who you’re dealing with, what their capabilities are, and how to manage them. Give them a problem to focus on, a direction to follow and they will get there. In my experience, they do work together very well. It was my job to bridge the gap between other functional areas of the business.

I’ve also worked with extremely creative marketing types at Ogilvy & Mather’s in New York. Arguable on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of STEM subjects and liberal arts subjects, they were just as difficult to communicate with. Their socializing patterns were equally confined to their own tribe but were much more overt. In comparing the two, I would also add that many of the socializing patterns observed with the marketing types were much more likely to be self-destructive. Failure to recognize the socialization pattern of a particular group does not mean they are absent.

During the engagement at Ogilvy & Mather’s, I worked very well with my counterpart from the marketing department. Our unique set of skills for bridging the gap between the two tribes was essential to successful communication. To illustrate the narrow perspective from my classmate, consider rewording her response as follows:

When I worked in marketing at a company, we had many Frenchmen who only spoke French on staff. It was obvious that they were incredibly smart and had a strong linguistic education, but they could not speak English with each other or anyone else. When they were required to work as part of the team but just came and zoned out at meetings. To discuss projects with them was frustrating and difficult and rarely resulted in getting what we needed.

At my current organization we have two French guys that also speak fluent English and who are laid back, funny and articulate. We joke that they must have had a liberal arts education first as they don’t fit the stereotype of the non-English speaking Frenchman. They are incredible at conversing with the English speaking staff and never talk down to us. Their social skills are way above the French only speakers of my experience.

Just like imposing advanced math and science classes won’t automatically produce competent engineers, imposing art, music and literature classes won’t automatically product a “well rounded” individual. There is one difference, however, as noted by Paul Graham: “When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at openmindedness, they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite.”