Since Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt warned Britain in 2011 that it was “just throwing away its great computing heritage” by focusing on humanities rather than computer science, the chorus of technical leaders warning of the widening skills gap has continued to grow. Baroness Martha Lane Fox, technology entrepreneur and ambassador, used the influential BBC Dimbleby Lecture this year to implore Britain to produce more programmers. But is that really the answer, or is a classics education more versatile and valuable?

Jonathan Evans, now Lord Evans, studied classics at Bristol University. Director-general of MI5 from 2007-13, just as cyber terrorism became one of the country’s biggest threats, he argues that a classics education provides the best foundation for whatever challenges lie ahead. Kathryn Parsons, despite having studied classics at Cambridge before co-founding Decoded, one of Britain’s fastest-growing technology training companies, argues Britain more urgently needs computer scientists than classics scholars.

Jonathan Evans

Studying classics at university can be a good preparation for working life. In general, graduate employers are looking not for specific work-related skills, but for young people with good academic discipline, enquiring minds and openness to a range of new ideas. If you love classics, then it provides all those, and is at least as attractive as more obviously vocational subjects when it comes to finding a rewarding and interesting career.

Kathryn Parsons

I can’t deny classics teaches many valuable skills for work and life.

No one would dispute that in order to understand the present you must understand the past. But to understand the future, one must look to the languages of now: the languages of code.

The love I had for unpicking classical languages, unearthing the cultures within them; the creativity of decoding their words (their codes) and then piecing together their worlds can be applied just as readily to the languages of technology.

To understand the foundations of computational thinking, all you need is the same academic discipline, enquiring mind and openness to a range of new ideas you mention in regards to classics.

But the reality is that the future is being written in lines of code and there is an increasingly urgent need among businesses globally to recruit digitally literate people and programmers. Having digital literacy or skills is to have a competitive edge in a market where demand greatly exceeds supply.

I think you are making my case for me. You read classics and that has opened up all sorts of possibilities for you — including in the high technology area of coding. That is the joy of a classics education. It provides an academic rigour and a mindset that can be applied in various walks of life.

When I was in MI5, there were several classicists there in different roles. One close colleague left and is now making a successful career in business. It is amazing where classicists end up!

I know a lot of classicists who’ve found careers in technology too.

In fact, the background of the team here is incredibly diverse, ranging from PhDs in physics to English literature degrees. However, everyone has a fundamental understanding of technology and code in addition to softer, but equally important skills in communication and understanding human behaviour.

Technology is becoming ubiquitous, so humans need to be able to think like computers and be unafraid of technology. But how many of us can truly say we understand the technologies behind the screen? Less than 1 per cent of the world?

Considering technology’s profound impact on our lives, combined with the web’s unparalleled ability to disseminate and democratise learning, this is surprising and, from an economic point of view, worrying.

I agree that technology is one of the central factors shaping the world today, and anyone who is interested in where the world is going, economically, politically or environmentally, needs to take technological change seriously. Things have changed enormously in the past 20 years.

The sort of life I now lead with a portfolio of interests in different sectors and different countries would have been impossible 20 years ago without significant secretarial and clerical support. Now I can do it all with a smartphone and an iPad, and use the travel time effectively wherever in the world I am.

But to do this, you do not have to study computer science or even a technical subject at university. I am all in favour of people studying those subjects if that is what they enjoy or are good at, but I am equally in favour of having a good number of people who have studied classics, philosophy or art.

The future is unpredictable. We will need diverse skills and knowledge to make the best decisions about the problems and opportunities we will face, many of which we cannot even imagine at present.

Who would have thought 40 years ago that one of the central factors shaping political events in Europe would be religious extremism? Religion was meant to have died out by now! What has computer science got to say about this? A bit maybe, but not a lot. I guess that a classicist or a historian might have more useful insights.

It is fair to say that the act of studying any subject adds to our ability to question, think and improve our minds. However, there are certain subjects that go further and teach us skills that can open doors to new worlds.

When people and societies were liberated by an ability to read and write, it broke down elitist knowledge and empowered individuals and society to progress. Similarly, mathematics empowered us to understand the universe more fully, and a basic grasp of numbers is essential to everyday life — from shopping to telling the time.

So, why do I think learning code has the right to sit alongside these skills and is more important for children and young adults to study than classics? Because today technology is infiltrating our lives and changing our behaviours at such a speed that, for the sake of our progress as a society, it can no longer be the preserve of academia or business.

This is not just about using technology. It is about understanding it and participating in shaping it. In years to come we will look at a time when a knowledge of code and the basic digital literacy it enabled allowed all of society to participate fully in that revolution.

I wonder what the similar moment might be for classics. Or has it passed?

I have to concede that classics is not about to have a moment that is transformative in the way that technology based on coding may achieve.

But when that transformation takes place, and if it does, then its impact will be appreciated, exploited and made sense of, not just by the code writers, but by many people with diverse skills and approaches — including those who have enjoyed and learned from a study of the classical world, from which so many of our own attitudes and values are derived.

* Lord Evans and Ms Parsons conducted their debate via email over several months. They were given a maximum word count, but were left to decide the number of arguments each would submit.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article