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Now More Than Ever. Why The World Needs Liberal Arts Education.

liberal arts education.  Marketing.  Society.  SKills.

What is the one thing you believe in that nobody else does?  That’s the question that was presented to Chad Dickerson in a video interview.  He eloquently pointed out that perhaps even more than math and science, what the world needs today is liberal arts education.  While he certainly isn’t the first or only person to think this, he does bring attention to a dangerous trend we are seeing in the US today and perhaps in other regions as well.  Namely, in our insatiable lust for business and technology, we seem to be ignoring the many significant benefits that a liberal arts education can provide.  For those who are not familiar with the concept of a liberal arts education here is a definition from Wikipedia: “(a term which) refers to certain areas of literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology and science.  Some programs (especially the Ivy Leagues) also cover social sciences and the humanities.”  Essentially, liberal arts refers to matters not relating to professional, vocational or technical curricula.

The past few years, however, have seen an alarming erosion of the number of liberal arts schools and degrees.  Many programs are succumbing to the market demands for graduates with more technical, scientific and vocational backgrounds (i.e. more “practical” degrees).  These include engineering, computer programming skills, finance and even general business degrees.  This trend is not difficult to understand.  The technological breakthroughs of the past few decades have been breathtaking and with them come further demands (and money) for graduates with ever more specialized skills.  Students on the lookout for jobs and opportunities are turning towards post-high school educational institutions who can best prepare them for the red hot science and business careers of tomorrow.

The danger in this is that society seems to be ignoring or downplaying the value of a richer more diverse liberal education. As the beneficiary of a US liberal arts education I can certainly attest to the personal and professional value of a liberal arts background.  While the world may be taking a dramatic turn toward technology, science and business, it cannot do so indefinitely.  Science industries will struggle without talent that can design, articulate and guide innovation within the larger human and societal context.  Why fear a future of mindless robots when we are in fact creating a world of highly specialized human machines?

No less than our great technology guru, Steve Jobs, pointed out the benefits of his own liberal arts education and how it came to influence both him and Apple in remarkable and profound ways.  Who would have thought that an unplanned course in calligraphy would teach him the art and beauty of design?

A liberal arts education offers many advantages and skills that we ignore at our peril.  Here are a few examples:

  • Ethics.  With every technological advance, we will be facing ever more complex ethical dilemmas.  Society needs a moral compass to guide us.  Where will this come from if not from a liberal education?
  • Design. If Apple has taught us anything is the importance and indeed the triumph of pairing good design with technology.  The careful blending of art and science has created unimaginable wealth.  By studying Art History, students can learn to appreciate the significance of aesthetics and design in everything we do today.
  • History.  While the Greeks have said that there is nothing new under the sun, others have said that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.  A basic understanding of history is therefore an essential ingredient of everyone’s education.
  • Psychology.  More and more, technologies and businesses will struggle to win in a world of complex perceptions and human ideals.  Psychology gives us the tools to understand the ways of human thinking and behavior.
  • Communication.  Even the best innovations will need to be championed and clearly articulated to the world.  Successful businesses will come to rely on leaders and marketers who can express themselves well in both written and oral forms.
  • Critical thinking.  Beyond the world of bits and bytes, there is a universe of hubris, noise, mis-information, emotions, fanaticism, half-truths, biases and other distractions which will cloud our decision-making.  Businesses will need leaders who can sort the wheat from the chaff.  This takes learning and experience that cannot come exclusively from technical degrees.
  • Literature.  Reading the great masters, whether Shakespeare, Hugo or Tolstoy, is an essential dimension of a well-rounded individual and employee.  The great writers hold up a mirror to society and allow us to understand the human condition better.
  • Debating.  Business is not an absolute science and when success rests on making 1 or 2 critical decisions, you will need people who can intelligently and eloquently argue their points.  This too is a skill that is learned but not in textbooks and not in science labs!
  • Foreign languages.  We operate in a global and interconnected world.  Understanding other cultures and ways of thinking has to start with exposure to other countries and languages than the ones we are raised in/with.

My fear is that in a society that has fallen head over heels in love with scientific and vocational secondary education, we will turn out a generation of young job seekers who may find work but who will be personally unfulfilled.  Businesses will also suffer through the implications of an acute shortage of fresh talent that is balanced and well rounded.  Eventually (inevitably?) the balance will shift and the once-foresaken liberal arts degrees will come back in favor as we look for talent that can help us navigate the overabundance of technology that surrounds us.  The long awaited return of the Renaissance man/woman?

But why wait for this to happen?  Parents and young students should already start anticipating this tectonic shift.  We should be preparing the current generation for what society needs today (technical, scientific and vocational degrees) AND for what it will need tomorrow (humanities).  Is it too much to ask for every university student to spend 1-2 years learning about more than how to program or use spreadsheets?  Given the ever-increasing costs of a university degree, governments and industry will need to collaborate in order to facilitate, fund and promote this type of education. Countries that successfully do so will have an important competitive advantage in the years ahead.
photo credit: Chris Devers via photopin cc

4 comments on “Now More Than Ever. Why The World Needs Liberal Arts Education.

  1. acniebauer
    February 26, 2013

    Thank you for writing this, I couldn’t agree more.
    People have been quick to condemn the 4-year liberal arts degree in the States, but I would agree that this herd mentality towards purely career-oriented education and away from a well-rounded education including the humanities will lead to, if nothing else, a very boring generation.

  2. beyonddefence
    March 5, 2013

    Absolutely. Not only does society need the liberal arts far more than it realises, but liberal arts students must find better ways of showing society what they can do. It is time for the polymaths to stop leaving themselves at the mercy of the few niches in business or government where they are still valued and come together to build their own endeavours. That said, there are plenty of liberal arts and social science programs that are basically avenues for using tuition to fund research rather than educating a small number of passionate students.

  3. Paolo Rossi
    March 14, 2013

    t agree more. Actually there is book I recommend :

    • Andrew Hyncik
      March 15, 2013

      Thanks Paolo. What the world needs here is more than a trend back to the humanities. It needs a full-scale movement if we are to reverse the trend of the last 20-30 years.

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Parifornia is the creation of Andrew Hyncik, an experienced International Marketing executive who's lived and worked for over 20 years in both Europe and North America.

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