Original insights in international business and marketing
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:
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