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Too Many MBAs?

Ray Williams
Ray Williams
at Ray Williams Associates

Why We Need Liberal Arts Graduates in Business

Liberal arts education is in a life-and-death struggle amidst pressure by politicians, business leaders and educational administrators to diminish or eliminate its presence in our postsecondary institutions and replace it with a job-targeted educational system emphasizing technological and practical skills. Yet, ironically, the importance and utililty of a liberal education has never been greater.

The Causes

Powerful forces have contributed to a perspective that a liberal education is no longer relevant, including the following:

  • Each year in the U.S. alone, more than 30 million workers are working in jobs that did not exist in the previous quarter.
  • Every year, more than one-third of the entire labor force changes jobs.
  • Students now graduating from postsecondary institutions will have 10-14 jobs by the time they are 38 years old.
  • The U.S. competes with Asian countries where technological education is stressed.
  • Unemployment rates for college graduates remain high regardless of the economic recovery from the recession.

Political and "Expert" Pressure on Colleges and Universities

Business and military leaders complain that students are ill-educated for the work that needs doing. For example, Walter Russell Mead recommends scrapping liberal arts in higher education and replacing them with skill-based certificates, and The Council on Foreign Relations recommends an education system that produces better soldiers, security analysts, managers and producers.

Liberal arts education programs are under duress in higher education, in an atmosphere of increasing anti-intellectualism, where uninformed opinions based on little facts and even less study of our history and culture are being spouted by political and business leaders on a daily basis.

Part of the reason for the decline of liberal arts in colleges and universities and their increased focus on professions, technology and sciences has been an economic one. The rising cost of postsecondary education has put a liberal arts education out of reach for most working-class and middle-class families, and these students are compelled to pursue vocationally oriented educations out of necessity. Second, higher education institutions have partially solved their funding problem by turning more and more to research grants and endowments provided by corporations, which are often driven by self-interest.

An article by Joseph Epstein argues that the division between vocational and liberal arts education, which began during the 19th century with the advent of the land-grant state universities in the U.S., is today tilting further and further in favor of the vocational. Even within the liberal arts, more and more students are fleeing from the traditional liberal arts courses such as English or history to the marketable subjects such as economics, in hope that this will bring them the practical credentials that might impress prospective employers.

The war on the liberal arts is also born from the same desire of right-wing America, which has produced voter ID laws, an attempt to limit democratic participation. The goal of a liberal arts education was never primarily direct economic benefit for the recipients; it was to produce an educated citizenry.

Rosanna Warren, the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of Chicago, argues, "Most people need and want the arts in their lives. Our civilization may now be so coarsened that we will eliminate the humanities from our schools, and we will train citizens only for technical skills which give them no sense of what they are living for, or why."

What Is a Liberal Education and Why Is It Important?

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a liberal education can be defined as "an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings."

The term "liberal education" was first used in classical Greek and Roman times, chosen to emphasize the fact that it helped people deal with their rulers critically. Through time, a liberal education was thought to help a person become wise.

As former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley so aptly put it, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.”

“I think, increasingly, anything you learn is going to become obsolete within a decade,” said Lawrence Summers, a former president of Harvard University, “and so the most important kind of learning is about how to learn.”

David Autor, the MIT economist who has studied the impact of technology and globalization on labor, wrote, "Human taks that have proved most amendable to computerization are those that follow explicit, codifiable proceures where computers now vastly exceed human labor in speed, quality, accuracy and cost efficiency. Tasks that have proved most vexing to automate are those that demand flexibiilty, judgment and common sense." In other words, the kinds of skills learned in a liberal arts education.

The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They are necessary and require our support in challenging times as well as in times of prosperity. And our current education system in North America is losing that perspective, says a report by the National Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It’s fashionable these days for business leaders to lampoon liberal arts graduates and exalt those with professional degrees. Peter Drucker, often acknowledged as the world’s foremost expert on management and leadership, said this belief is misplaced. Drucker drew many of his insights from literature and social sciences, not economics and business. 

In an article in the London Times, entitled "Harvard's Masters of the Apocalypse," Philip Broughton, a Harvard Business School graduate and author of “What They Teach You At Harvard,” says, “You can draw up a list of the greatest entrepreneurs of recent history, from Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google and Bill Gates of Microsoft, to Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Lakshmi Mittal – and there's not an MBA among them.” Mark Zuckerberg was a classic liberal arts student who also happened to be passionately interested in computers. He studied ancient Greek intensively in high school and majored in psychology while he attended college.

Steve Jobs made a statement that points straight to the value of the liberal arts in the 21st century. “We’re not just a tech company, even though we invent some of the highest technology products in the industry,” he said. “It’s the marriage of that plus the humanities or the liberal arts that distinguishes Apple.”

Norman Augustine, longtime chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, insists that liberal arts deficiencies are putting the U.S. at a strategic disadvantage. In a 2010 American Management Association Study, less than 50 percent of the executives polled said their employees had effective communication and innovative-thinking skills, and 80 percent said colleges and universities could better prepare America’s future workforce by placing more emphasis on the humanities.

"You need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts," Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president who oversees the company's hiring, told the New York Times. "Building that balance is hard, but that's where you end up building great societies, great organizations."

At the very moment when China, Singapore and some European countries are seeking to institute the concept of a broad liberal education, the U.S. and Canadian higher education institutions are narrowing their focus on scientific and technological enterprises.

What About Financial End Results?

There are lots of cause-and-effect arguments out there. Science and technology graduates get paid more than liberal arts graduates, the argument goes. Yet, an article in the Wall Street Journal by Melissa Korn cites the research by the American Association of American Colleges and Universities, which advocates a broad-based liberal arts education and shows that while liberal arts graduates initially make lower salaries than business graduates, in the long term the differences are minimal. 

Fareed Zakaria, in his recent article in the Washington Post, raises the alarm for an American push for STEM education and the diminishment of a liberal education, saying, "America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computer and other new technologies will interact with human beings."

In summary, it's clear that a core liberal education is necessary for a thriving economy and sustaining a democratic society.

Image from Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Ray Williams
Ray Williams
business.com Member
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Ray Williams, Master Certified Coach, is widely regarded as one of Canada’s top executive coaches. He brings over 35 years experience to his clients as a CEO, and senior HR executive and professional speaker. Ray is the recipient of the Master Educator Award from the American Society of Education Executives, and is also past President of the International Coach Federation and Governor of the National Staff Development Council in the U.S. He has clients in Fortune 500 companies, Best Managed Companies in Canada and small to medium sized businesses and non-profit organizations throughout the world in the areas of leadership, workplace culture, team development and peak performance. He has been very active in such organizations as the Vancouver Board of Trade, having served as a Director and Vice-Chair. Ray has written for or been interviewed by The Washington Post, Forbes, USA Today, NBC News, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, MacLean’s, The Financial Post, Fast Company and Psychology Today, Salon, and dozens of other and other national and international publications having published more than 300 articles. He is author of a new best selling book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Navigate Chaotic Workplaces. He has also written a book on educational leadership, The Leadership Edge, a personal growth book, Breaking Bad Habits, and was contributing author to Systemic Change, and the Best Seller, Ready, Aim, Influence. He has also written a novel and screenplay entitled Dragon Tamer.