Why The Liberal Arts are Necessary for Long-Term Success
The Short-Sightedness of STEM
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W. Denham Sutcliffe, American author and professor of English at Kenyon College, said this about the liberal arts. "Liberal learning is that which underlies, that which gives purpose and direction to practical skills. It tries to distinguish between more and less important, between the grand and the trivial, and to concern itself rather with the center than with the periphery."
It has become an accepted truism that if you want your daughter or son to succeed she or he needs to focus on the STEM subjects--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These STEM majors are broadly seen as a certain pathway to employment in our brave new technological world.
Fast Company quotes venture capitalist Marc Andreesen as saying the average English degree holder is "fated to become a shoe salesman, hawking wares to former classmates who were lucky enough to have majored in math." And Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, refers to degrees like philosophy as "antiquated, debt-fueled luxury goods."
However, Andreesen and Thiel are both short-sighted and wrong. While it is probably true that a college graduate may well make more money initially on graduation by training in the STEM specialties, that fact may have a limited half-life, particularly if you wish to become an entrepreneurial or corporate leader.
Michael Zimm, a strategist at Digital Surgeons, said the following in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week:
"...my advice is to let your child know that a liberal-arts degree can be a great launching pad for a career in just about any industry. Majoring in philosophy, history or English literature will not consign a graduate to a fate of perpetual unemployment. Far from it. I say this as a trained classicist--yes, you can still study ancient Greek and Latin--who decided to make a transition to the tech world.
I am far from alone. There are plenty of entrepreneurs, techies and private-equity managers with liberal arts degrees. Damon Horowitz, a co-founder of the search engine Aardvark, holds a doctorate in philosophy. Slack founder Stewart Butterfield and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman both earned master's degrees in philosophy."
In fact, over a third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees. My personal theory about this is that liberal arts train us to see the forest, not just the trees, and that that is the big picture training needed for entrepreneurial and corporate leadership.
It is hard to accept this when immediate and higher paid employment after college pays more right out of the box. It is hard for expense weary parents to see the long-term advantages of broad and deep training in how to think, in how to objectively see and analyze the rapidly changing world as it actually is. But leaders trained in the liberal arts have intellectual flexibility and the ability to think creatively. They can assume the mantle of ahead-of-the-curve visionary process in a world of constant speed-of-light change. They know how to tap into the non-quantitative intuitions that constitute the foundation of creative business and creative life for that matter. They know how to bring love, meaning, and passion, as well as immediate profit, to entrepreneurship and long-term corporate health.
As Albert Einstein put it, "The value of an education in liberal arts...is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned in textbooks."
The liberal arts offer a path for dealing with chaos and complexity. Graduating students need to think not only about their immediate prospects in the current HR marketplace but also about what will nurture long-term leadership skills for larger success and business usefulness.
This is not just granola, hippie impracticality and idealism. It is business selfishness. The very practical success of cutting-edge autodidactic business leaders like John Mackey, Elon Musk, Danny Meyer, Tony Hsieh, Steve Jobs, et. al., in their variegated ways are the future.
Unlike the thoughts of Marc Andreesen and Peter Thiel about STEM specialization (with immediate employability in coding or programing), the long-term promise of preparation in the liberal arts is compelling. It is supremely ironic that at the exact time time we are required to absorb and synthesize a veritable fire-hose torrent of change and new knowledge, we are societally shying away from the very skills that make such conditions manageable.
Seth Godin writes the following: "The competitive advantages the marketplace demands is someone more human, connected, and mature. Someone with passion and energy, capable of seeing things as they are and negotiating multiple priorities as she makes useful decisions without angst. Flexible in the face of change, resilient in the face of confusion." Well said. Thank you, Seth.