From Greeks to Geeks: The Classical Liberal Arts as the Best Foundation for STEM

Michael Ortner delivered this talk at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education's National Catholic Classical Schools Conference on July 25, 2018.

Thank you to the Institute for inviting me to be here. I still question whether I am qualified to speak, so I will manage your expectations right out of the gate. I went to public school for the entirety of  preschool through high school and most assuredly never received a formal classical education. So on behalf of my younger self, I plead ignorance. I did not know what I was missing until I became an avid reader at the ripe age of 24. I read lots of good and bad books before eventually discovering Plato’s dialogues, and to make a long story short, the dialogues along with a few other books had quite the impact on my life, very much raising the bar for what I aspired to learn, accomplish, and how to live my life. To this day I wonder what would have happened to me if I did not begin to discover the Great Books 20 years ago. That said, I still have a long way to go. I take solace in the words of Mortimer Adler, one of my favorite 20th-century philosophers and leaders in education. At the age of 76, he said, “I hope I can be forgiven for the immodesty of regarding myself as an educated person. I have become educated only in the last 20 to 25 years of my life. I may have thought that I was educated when I graduated from college or when I received my Ph.D. But I now know that that was an illusion.” God bless your soul, Dr. Adler. You give hope to many of us.

I am here to help dispel the rather insidious myth that in order to have a fulfilling career in business, or technology, or engineering, or become a tech entrepreneur, or even be a competent user of technology in whatever career you choose, that your K-12 education must include a heavy dose of computers; that every child must walk around with laptops or ipads and learn programs like PowerPoint and Google Docs before moving on to an intensive STEM curriculum in middle school and high school. While this all seems silly at face value to many of us in both the tech sector and the classical education world, it remains a trap for many schools and many parents. Not only is an early emphasis on technology unnecessary, much worse, the opportunity cost of what they don’t learn and experience is far too high. Don’t misunderstand me—I think coding and robotics are wonderful things to expose your kids to at young ages, but much more as after school or summer programs, not part of the core of their curriculum.

I’d like to share a story.

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Seven years ago I attended a lecture across the city at my alma mater, Georgetown. Coincidentally, it was to honor a Catholic University professor and it was organized by Patrick Deneen who—unfortunately for Georgetown—has since moved on to teach at Notre Dame. As I entered the room, Patrick approached me and introduced me to Andrew Zwerneman, who was then the headmaster of Trinity School at Meadow View. (Andrew is now the president of Cana Academy, which opened two years ago.) Patrick sent his two sons to Trinity and billed it as an amazing classical school and right in my backyard in northern Virginia. This was not the first time I had heard of the school…less than a year earlier, my parish priest tipped me off to the school and spoke highly of it…even warning me against the local diocesan schools. And in between these two events I ran into several other people who sang the praises of this great school that required all students to take Latin, read Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Aquinas and other great minds from Western civilization, discuss them in Socratic seminars, take college-level math, two years of physics, write analytical essays, etc. Anyway, Andrew and I shook hands, chatted briefly and went on our way.

At the time, I ran a tech company that I had started about a decade earlier in 1999. We had a summer internship program and I thought…wouldn’t it be interesting to see how well these high school students would perform as interns? So I reached out to Andrew and asked him if he knew of any students who may be interested. He said he would pass it along. About a week later I received emails from a pair of brothers—a sophomore and a senior, ages fifteen and eighteen, expressing interest.

Now this particular summer we had an employee named Danny who would manage all the interns in addition to his everyday role. This included all the recruiting, and he had done a fabulous job putting together a dream team of six interns in their early twenties, all from top nearby colleges. Suffice it to say he was not enthused when I asked him to take on a seventh and an eighth intern, especially when I mentioned their ages. But I twisted his arm a bit, and he took them on.

About three weeks after they started, I got a late night email from Danny…”Where on earth did you find these two kids?”

“Why Danny, is something wrong?”

“These guys are amazing. Their honesty, work ethic, the questions they ask, their overall character, their proactive communication, a joy to be around…it’s almost like they are a different species. We actually put the eighteen year old on the phone with customers (which never happens). And the fifteen year old consistently outperforms the college students by two to three times.”

I recall thinking, “No Danny, they are not a different species. They are what humans are meant to be.”

Later that summer, I decided to see for myself what the fifteen year old could do. It was a Friday afternoon and I found myself buried in a research project that needed  to get done but was not a good use of my time. I estimated it would have taken me about 10 more man hours. I handed it over to him at 4pm or so on a Friday and asked if he could work on it the following week. I gave him no deadline. On Monday morning at 10:00, he emailed the completed project to me, and it was virtually flawless. I immediately went over to his desk to reprimand him for working on it over the weekend and he promised that he did not…that he just got in at 7:00 that morning and cranked it out in three hours. While I felt slightly dumbfounded and ashamed for being beaten by a fifteen year old, I was mostly just impressed. There is nothing like witnessing human excellence firsthand.

This was the first of many humbling experiences for me since we decided from that point on we would for the most part only hire student interns who were classically educated, mostly from Trinity. And while these two kids were two of the best interns we ever hired, they were not anomalies. Most of the couple dozen interns we hired over the ensuing five years or so thrived while performing a range of functions for us: research, writing, marketing, even sales…a few summers ago one of them even coded for our engineering team, which is remarkable given the complexity of our system and the seniority of our engineers. These were the types of kids that our managers would fight to have on their team, and I can’t tell you how rare that is.

So the question arises…why? Why do these classically educated teenagers perform so well, better than others who were older, more experienced, and had more business and even more STEM education? I have thought about this a lot, discussed it with many colleagues, and before I share my current answer, I would like to first qualify it. In short, I don’t know. While I have witnessed the better performances firsthand, to then identify the actual causes of these differences is difficult. I don’t want to fall into the many reductionist traps that abound. And honestly, I imagine that their parents and family life is likely a material part of the story. My understanding is that most, if not all of them, came from extremely nurturing  families, with both a mother and father who were very engaged and supportive. This is likely half or more of the battle. After all, education begins in the home. So treat my answers as more like hypotheses that still need to be proven…or for that matter disproved.

First, let me begin by saying that the shortest and most accurate explanation may simply be that a classical upbringing may be the most effective at raising high character individuals. Because so much of what set them apart was character. Their work ethic: they came to work in order to actually get stuff done. Their humility: they had no problem asking questions in order to clarify. Or their curiosity: they asked lots of why questions. Their honesty: they only wanted to get paid for hours of actual work they conducted. I could go on. These traits may seem so basic but they are not common. At least not in the general workforce. That said, while I would argue that character is the most important thing, it is not everything.

So when I consider what skills or traits or domains of knowledge are helpful for a career in tech startups or STEM in general and I cross reference those skills with areas where employers consistently complain about their younger employees, and then once again cross reference those with what classical programs focus on in their curriculum, I am led to three distinct areas, aside from character in general, where classical/liberal programs have significant advantages over what has become mainstream education.

Broadly speaking, these three areas are how to think, how to communicate, and how to understand human beings. Let’s begin with how to think:

In 2016 an HR company named Payscale surveyed tens of thousands of company executives and managers and found that 60% of them reported that new college graduates lack “critical thinking skills.” This study corroborates others studies performed over the years that have found similar dissatisfaction with the critical thinking skills of young adults. But how could this be, given how much schools–not just colleges, but also primary and secondary schools–claim to emphasize the importance of critical thinking? How are they missing the mark so badly?

I believe that the root of the disparity is a disagreement about what critical thought actually is…and an even larger disparity with how to nurture it. (And let’s put aside for a moment the distaste that many of us have for this phrase.) My understanding of critical thinking has been synonymous with the act of seeking out all possible evidence, leaving no stone unturned in one’s search for the truth, considering all perspectives, identifying patterns, recognizing your assumptions, being as objective as possible throughout the process, not only breaking down a whole into its component parts but also understanding the whole in relation to the greater world around it. Check your biases and your emotions, as much as you can, at the door. It relies heavily on data but also recognizes its limitations. It is rigorous, it is analytical, it is open to new ideas.

Sound familiar? I’m sure there are plenty of folks in this room who could contribute to and improve on this definition, which I would encourage because it is not only related to classical education broadly and intellectual virtues specifically, but it is what we aim for in the world of business and technology.

And, unfortunately, I think this is in direct contrast to what I witness in education and broader society today where critical thinking is often highly emotional, politicized, and quick to draw conclusions. Just one example of this: our society has grown to practically worship scientific research. If you can make a claim that is supported by research, then the likelihood of getting others to believe your claim increases exponentially. The problem with this is the now well documented reality that most (and by most, I do mean well over half) of scientific studies cannot be reproduced. (And of course part of what makes science science is its reproducibility.) Note, the irony here is rich: I just cited research that acknowledges that most research is in fact dubious. So believe me at your own peril! The problem is that so many of us continue to over-rely on it when forming our beliefs about just about anything.

Let’s be clear, I’m not denigrating science. Science is a pillar in the great liberal tradition. It is an excellence of the mind. And it goes without saying that it serves a great good in our lives. When conducted properly, scientific research and claims should be a valuable input into whatever conclusions we are attempting to draw; after all, just because something cannot be reproduced does not mean it is wrong. But we should not suffer from scientism and neglect other inputs that should also help form our conclusions. Truly educated persons challenge everything. This does not make them skeptics; they do believe that truth exists and that we can come to know it, but they are simply cautious when embracing a claim as truthful. Figures like Plato and Aquinas are amazing role models in this regard. In their writings, they very much model the humility that is such an intrinsic part of the classical approach to critical thinking. Whether you are asking fundamental questions about the nature of justice and what is a life well lived, or more immediately practical questions like how to best serve your customer or reach your target market, the virtue of humility serves all of us extremely well. Begin with the disposition that you don’t have all the answers, and with the determination to seek those answers by whatever method necessary.

So, other than the humility which it encourages, why is classical education the best path to critical thinking? The grammar and logic stages of the trivium seem like the ideal bedrock and model for critical thought. In the grammar stage we focus on collecting lots of data to learn as much as possible about a given topic, and then in the logic stage we practice making connections and drawing conclusions regarding all of these data points while avoiding the common fallacies. Is this not what a good businessperson, entrepreneur, engineer, or scientist tries to do?

In addition, has a better language ever been constructed to learn than Latin—to force us to think carefully and methodically and logically? I realize that the main reasons that most of us learn Latin is so that we can better understand our own English language, or position us to more easily learn the romance languages, or, for the truly aspirational among us, to read Caesar and Virgil and others in their native tongue; but I submit to you that if I really wanted my sons and daughters to become great coders, I cannot think of time better spent between the ages of 8 and 16 than learning the highly inflected and structured language of Latin. Show me someone who has taken 4-8 years of Latin and is not a logical, methodical, critical thinker. I have to think you will be hard pressed.

Now that we have covered how to think, I’d like to briefly touch on the second area where classical programs have a substantial advantage over mainstream schools: how to communicate. The deficiency of good communication skills is another often-cited complaint by company executives. The same Payscale survey that found that 60% of recent grads lack critical thinking skills found that 46% lack good communication skills. And, once again, the survey results were not clear by what was meant here. So I will speak from my own experiences.

How do we communicate in the business world? It is shockingly similar to the non-business world. The medium ranges from email to phone to in-person. We discuss problems, share best practices, and attempt to persuade others. Ideally, we do so in a well articulated, candid manner. Once we learn to think logically, we must learn how to communicate effectively and persuasively. What could be better preparation for this than the analytical essays that we write and the Socratic discussions that we engage in during the rhetoric stage of the trivium? No, we don’t do too many of either of these in the world of business, but we do make arguments, ask lots of questions, offer different perspectives, and debate best next actions. The latter should follow naturally, in fact beautifully, from the former.

Furthermore, I return to the virtue of humility. How do we actually speak with our colleagues, our customers, our prospects, and our investors? Are we know-it-alls? Or are we seeking to understand by asking questions? I think you can guess which approach will be more successful. True humility helps us to not only arrive at the right answers, but also to communicate it with others in a way that will be better received.

Let me round out the trifecta of classical advantages: how a truly liberal education helps us to understand humans. What is the goal of every single business? To help people. That’s right. It is to help people by delivering on whatever product or service that our business has created. And if we do this really well it will enable us to best serve the other two stakeholders of every business: employees (by helping them make a living and by satisfying their need to serve others) and shareholders (by helping them to achieve a solid return on invested capital).

But in order to truly help people, we must first understand them. We must know what it means to be human. While it is a well-kept secret that many classical schools have more rigorous math and science programs than many STEM-focused schools, it is the humanities that lie at the core of a classical education. And while I include philosophy and theology as part of the humanities, I am largely thinking of history and literature. History deals in what humans have actually done. Literature attempts to unpack what humans are capable of, their greatest desires, why they do what they do. I can’t think of a better background for building a technology business, or any type of business for that matter, and creating products that truly serve people than a background in the humanities: that is, the humanities done well. In literature, the books that we read matter, and some books better capture the essence of human desires and struggles more than others. And in history, some time periods and regions offer greater lessons than others. So, unless we focus on the greatest books and the greatest moments in human history, then our time spent in the humanities will be less beneficial. And this goes for both high school as well as college.

So in summary, if you want your child to be positioned to have a thriving career in science, engineering or business in general, I think you would be hard pressed to beat a humanities-driven, classical education that teaches them to think critically, communicate well with others, and understand what it means to be human.

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Now I know that there are folks who will remain skeptical. They may argue that if you really wanted to be a great scientist or technologist, why would you not immerse yourself in those fields exclusively—and from a very young age—and not waste so much time learning about things that occurred hundreds or thousands of years earlier or read books written by people from those times. Wouldn’t that be the more direct approach of becoming the next great scientist or inventor or entrepreneur?

I understand that sentiment but I do think it is entirely wrong. In fact, it touches on one of the greatest lessons that I have learned in my eighteen years of starting and running a tech company. And that lesson is that some things are best accomplished, not as a primary goal, but as an indirect benefit of an even loftier goal. Let me explain.

Many companies take great pains to increase retention of their employees. After all, it costs a lot of money to recruit and hire good people, so the better job you do of retaining them, the more money you save, and the easier it is to grow. So companies will task their HR departments with this goal and have them doing all sorts of backflips, which includes a never ending barrage of well meaning measures and tactics to retain talent and lower turnover.

We never did this at my company, Capterra. We never had a single meeting regarding employee retention and what we could do to improve it. And we never spent any money or time discussing the next program we could roll out to improve it. In an industry where average turnover was in the 10-20% range, our annual employee turnover was less than 5%. But this was not due to any clever HR programs. Turnover was never an issue so we never even made it one of our goals. The reason was not that we did not care about our employees. On the contrary, the reason is that built into the fabric of our culture was the idea of treating our employees with dignity. I called it “treating each other like adults.” Or treat people the way you would like to be treated if you were not the CEO. You see, a CEO can choose to treat his or her people largely in one of two ways: like they are lucky to be working there and collecting a paycheck, or like he is lucky that they are choosing to work there and supporting the company’s mission. I chose the latter and I believe it made all the difference. So what does it mean to treat your employees with dignity? Every company and industry is different, but as an Internet company where we never meet with clients face to face and operate essentially round the clock, I did not care what people wore—as long as they wore something—and I did not care when they showed up or left: within reason. All I really cared about was they did amazing work, produced great results, delighted and even challenged our customers, and treated everyone with dignity. After that, I had no real rules. No set hours. Tons of flexibility to manage not only their work but their entire lives.

And you know what? Unsurprisingly, people loved it. Sure, recent college grads who had no reference point took it for granted. But anyone who had any work experience loved it—and for the most part never wanted to leave it. Imagine: the best retention program is not a retention program at all; but instead, it is merely a side benefit of your culture. Focus on an amazing culture that respects the dignity of all people as the primary goal, and retention takes care of itself.

Similarly, in the world of education, if we want the best technologists, the best entrepreneurs, or fill in the blank with whatever profession you can think of, then focus on forming the most virtuous, the highest character, the most knowledgeable, the most wise young men and women, and then you will have formed people who have the capacity to acquire any skills necessary to match up with their own talents; and then, they will be able to fulfill their calling not only within their professional lives, but also as the mothers, fathers, friends, and citizens that they are called to be. Every last one of us is called to be virtuous, to be wise, to be holy. Let’s not sell ourselves short with shortsighted, overly pragmatic goals. Most of us did not receive this sort of education, but that does not mean that our children have to suffer as well. They deserve what we all should have been given and we can be the generation that fixes it.

Michael Ortner is Chairman of the Board of Cana Academy.

Images of Mike Ortner courtesy of Andrew Zwerneman.